Staged Conversation can’t capture subtleties of film

By Andy Marchesseault

In writing a review of its theatrical adaptation, it is exceedingly difficult for me to forget that The Conversation is one of my favorite films. That said, it may have been more daunting a challenge for the Pyewacket theatre company to put Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece on stage. While watching the performance, I tried to view the play as separate from the film, attempting to appreciate and follow the show as if I had no previous knowledge of the movie. My problem was seemingly the same as Pyewacket’s: I just couldn’t remove myself from the inimitable original.

The film version of The Conversation, like its theatrical counterpart, revolves around the psyche of surveillance expert Harry Caul. In the movie, Gene Hackman gives a master class on subtle acting, as his meticulous and highly anxious Caul realizes that he may be an unwitting, silent accomplice to a murder. Although the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Hackman’s performance, the soul of the movie, was robbed of even a nomination. Coppola’s deft script and technical excellence, some great minor performances (notably by Teri Garr and John Cazale), the haunting backdrop of San Francisco (alá Vertigo), and Hackman’s under-acting all coalesce to create a classic that ranks with the first two Godfather films, which chronologically bookend The Conversation.

The film relies so much on interpretation and separation of space, time, and mind that the story itself is rendered nearly moot without the proper cohesion of these elements. That said, it took great mastery of the filmic language for Coppola and his team to successfully present his vision. The Conversation is presented as Caul’s paranoid fear come to life, with sound, images, and dreams all subject to his personal psychosis. Although the camera is hardly subjective, it is clear to viewers that what we see and hear is dependent on our protagonist.

The film embodies a subtlety that the play strains admirably to recreate, but from which it ultimately falls short. This does not mean, however, that the play is not interesting. Caul’s torment, complicated by his Catholic upbringing and an unusual relationship with his parents, is at the center of the film, and it is immediately brought to the fore as the play begins.

Caul (Robert Skrocki) walks to the spotlight at center stage, where he stands without emotion. Soon, the characters of the play circle him, surrounding him with their bodies and voices. As they leave, Caul drops to his knees, his hands clenched to his ears to block out a high-pitched squeal. In this opening sequence, we are succinctly introduced to Caul’s demons, pared down to a cacophony that he can’t escape. It’s not nearly as graceful a presentation as in the movie, but is, more importantly, theatrical.

The question of theatricality is at the heart of the play’s problems. In terms of the play’s set, it succeeds. The design team did a fine job of capturing the different spaces of the film, as Caul’s home and workshop are separated by four opaque screens. Other spaces are often simply represented by props that occupy amorphous spaces in between the layers of screens. Imagery projected on the back wall of the stage supplements the action on stage, giving substance to Caul’s dreams and clarification to otherwise vague scenarios. The half-translucency of the screens and the unfocused video symbolically capture the crux of the film: What do we really see? What do we really hear?

However, the play’s script is actually too faithful to the film’s screenplay, and consequentially overshoots the theater’s ability to render filmic elements. For example, the play, like the film, opens with the recording of the titular conversation, spoken by an adulterous woman and her lover. In the film, expert sound design and camera work capture the many elements utilized in the recording, including the van in which Caul and his assistant Stan mastermind the job. At one point, two young women approach the two-way mirror behind which Caul and Stan sit, applying their lipstick without fear of being spied upon. In the play, this scene is recreated with neither the establishment of the van nor the two-way mirror. We are left wondering what we’re actually seeing.

Director Kenneth Lee says in his notes that he wishes to communicate a contemporary sense of Big Brother paranoia through a play set in 1972. After seeing the play, I have to wonder why he and adapter (and Pyewacket Artistic Director) Kate Harris did not choose to update it. Although Coppola himself may have put limits on Lee and Harris’ artistic freedom, their loyalty to his screenplay deadens its relevance. How does early ’70s wire-tapping and eavesdropping relate to our early-21st century media assault? It’s all relative, yes, but so is a screenplay to a script.

Although some of the film is clarified (sometimes excessively) through minor additions to the screenplay, its essential melancholy is lost through Harris’ reverence of Coppola’s characters and dialogue. Notable performances by Garr and Cazale are made one-dimensional in the hands of stage counterparts Joan McClive and Doug Long, who are hardly given anything new with which to work. Many of the actors, like the script itself, seem to be going through the motions of the screenplay, rather than striving to reinvent Coppola’s conception. Besides Skrocki’s Caul, the characters that best survive the transition are Ron Quade’s smarmy Moran, and Harris herself as the seemingly innocent Meredith.

No matter the script deficiencies, the play’s final scene of Caul ripping apart his home in search of imagined bugs and wires is perhaps more heartbreaking than its filmic counterpart. This helped to ease my longing for David Shire’s haunting piano score from the film, and to distract me from the strangely anachronistic atmospheric sounds between scene changes. Where I wanted music, all I got was white noise.

But most of all, I missed the filmic subtlety embodied by Gene Hackman, who essentially reprised his Caul character in 1998’s Enemy of the State. Unlike the play, it did something new and contemporary with the original story. No one is calling that film a classic, but I also don’t think we should call Pyewacket’s Conversation an essential supplement to its source, nor can it fully stand alone. Hamstrung by an unfounded loyalty, the play—valiantly, but in vain—tries to revive instead of reinvent, finding mostly emptiness in classic, yet archived, substance.

The remaining performances of The Conversation will be this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm. Please call (773) 275-2201 for ticket reservations. Student tickets are $10 each with valid ID.