Thursday, November 17, 2016

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT Adapted for the Stage at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Molly Ringwald and Jeb Brown in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  Photo by Carole Rosegg.
Larry McMurtry wrote Terms of Endearment  in 1975.  It was the tale of Aurora Greenway, a self-absorbed widow, and her various relationships – with several different suitors; with her housekeeper; with her daughter, Emma; with Emma’s husband, Flap….  The story was largely farcical with a soap opera-ish conclusion revolving around the dissolution of Emma’s marriage and Emma’s ultimate death from cancer.   The book garnered mixed reviews: people generally enjoyed it but recognized its literary shortcomings and the disconnect between its comical beginnings and its tragic culmination.

The book was adapted for the big screen by James L. Brooks (who wrote, directed and produced it) in 1983 and the film version was enormously successful.  Indeed, Terms of Endearment received eleven Academy Award nominations and won five: Brooks walked away with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) while Shirley MacLaine won an award for Best Actress in the role of Aurora Greenway and Jack Nicholson won an award for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Garrett Breedlove, Aurora’s next door neighbor, a former astronaut, and her eventual lover.  (Garrett did not appear in the novel but was created for the film by Brooks who played fast and loose with many of the characters in McMurtry’s novel, eliminating several while adding Garrett.)

Now, in turn, McMurtry’s novel and Brooks’ screenplay have been adapted for the stage, this time by Dan Gordon, who hews closer to the film version than to the original book while paring down the cast of characters still further.  The play still revolves around the relationships between Aurora (Molly Ringwald) and her daughter, Emma (Hannah Dunne); between Aurora and her neighbor-astronaut-lover, Garrett (Jeb Brown); and between Emma and her husband, Flap (Denver Milord).  Emma’s best friend, Patsy Clark (Jessica Digiovanni) is retained in the play as well but most of the other characters who populated the film version are dispensed with: Janice, with whom Flap has the affair that leads to the dissolution of his marriage is mentioned in the play but never actually appears there as she did in the film; Sam Burns, Emma’s love interest outside of her marriage who was played in the film by John Lithgow, also is mentioned in the play but we never actually get to meet him either; neither does Vernon Dahlart, another of Aurora’s suitors who was played in the motion picture by Danny DeVito, ever appear in the stage version; and we don’t even get to see any of Emma’s three children, Tommy, Teddy and Melanie, all of whom appeared in the movie as well.

The net result is that Terms of Endearment, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is but a pale imitation of the motion picture.  The characters on stage are drawn rather shallowly and it is difficult to take their relationships and personae seriously enough to really care about any of them.  To be sure, Hannah Dunne is engaging as Emma (the role played by Debra Winger in the film) and both Denver Milord as Flap and Jessica Digiovanni as Patsy are more than adequate in their relatively unchallenging roles.  But Molly Ringwald, despite her well-established competence as an actress, suffers badly in comparison to Shirley MacLaine in the role of Aurora.  In part that is because Aurora’s role in the play is not nearly as well-written or meaty as was Aurora’s role in the movie.  But in part, too, it is because Shirley MacLaine’s stellar performance in the film was just too tough an act to follow.

Surprisingly (at least to me), the actor who comes across best in Terms of Endearment is Jeb Brown as Garrett Breedlove.  I should have thought that effectively reprising an Oscar-winning performance by the inimitable Jack Nicholson would have been well nigh impossible, especially given the play’s additional constraints.  But Jeb Brown has pulled if off: he has succeeded in channeling Jack Nicholson in his performance as effectively and effortlessly as Tina Fey channeled Sarah Palin.  It is his performance that is the high point of the play.