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Angeles: Mark Taper Forum
Originally billed as a musical, publicity for The First Picture Show has
shifted the description to a "music-theater piece," which is more accurate, will
probably lead to more realistic audience expectations, and makes it pretty clear that this
is a work in progress. None of which is negative. Many shows over the years have changed
and evolved as they have been developed in front of audiences. The old tradition of
pre-Broadway tryout tours to places like Boston and New Haven was a healthy one; it
provided the creative team feedback from live, public audiences, and a chance to edit,
tighten, fill, or whatever else needed to be done to turn what might have been a sow's ear
into a box office purse, before being subjected to the dread power critics of New York.
The First Picture Show brings many elements together that show the potential of a terrific evening of theater, but it does still need work. Broadly, it is exploring the early years of the film industry. It does so through the eyes of Jane Furstmann, the great niece of Anne First, a pioneer film maker, age 99, now in a retirement home. Furstmann is making a documentary film about her great aunt's experience in the industry and the play jumps back and forth across time telling their story and Anne's history. Jane's relationship with the cranky old lady is as close as the play gets to a protagonist/antagonist conflict, and that conflict isn't fleshed out enough to provide sufficient dramatic momentum for a more than two and a half hour show.
On the positive side, the character of the aged Anne is well conceived and developed and allows for a goodly amount of comment on the experience of being very old these days, some of it very funny, a lot of it pointedly and poignantly real. The audience reaction to Anne Gee Byrd's performance in the role indicated that both the character and her performance hit a resonant cord. Her first act song, What Am I Waiting For? (no song titles were provided in the program, so we are guessing here), is a winner - and one of the few songs in the show that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Which brings us to the music. What music there is in the show is largely bits and pieces, worked nicely into the dialogue, both solo and ensemble pieces moving the action along, but not, for the most part, standing alone. The lyrics are fresh, often amusing. With this quality, the appetite is whetted for more, and with so few real songs to grab on to, we left still a little hungry. Though the publicity mentions dance, if any happened, this viewer missed it.
On the other hand, the fourteen actors making up the cast and playing some forty plus roles are skillfully directed (David Gordon), particularly in the imaginative ways they are moved about the mostly bare stage, moving in and out of multiple scenes, locations, and time periods with a nicely fluid smoothness; this is choreographed movement, but not dance. Occasional use of projections, frames, and title cards like those in a silent movie also assist in continuity and provide a lot of information with clever and theatrical economy.
A good line in the play says, "History doesn't happen. A lot of things happen and somebody decides which ones will be history." There is irony in that line for The First Picture Show, which is trying to write a history. How do you pick "which ones"? In reality, no one "somebody" makes the decisions about history; lots of somebodies do. But in a play, the choices are the writer's and the director's - David Gordon, with Ain Gordon sharing credit for the book. Their problem is that they have not been selective enough. A play about a woman making films in the early years of the industry sounds focused, but here it expands to include: the family relationships, the issue of censorship, the experience of Asians in the industry, the experience of blacks in the industry, innovation in the process of filmmaking, the business and financing side of the industry - enough already. There's so much going on that they even felt it necessary in the second act to have Jane recite a review of all the themes that have preceded. Perhaps that would be a good place to start cutting.
It is understandable how the rich vein of materials to be mined afforded an excess of temptation. But once past a certain point, diminishing returns set in and the overall effort is weakened. The Asian experience, for example, never really takes hold on the stage, but the black experience is beautifully encapsulated in a segment performed by Harry Waters, Jr. The censorship issue is important, and some of the scenes dealing with it work very well, but it seems to take up more time proportionately than is necessary to make the point.
In addition to those already mentioned, Dinah Lenney gives a strong performance as Jane and the supporting cast playing multiple roles are a talented group, indeed. Unfortunately, Ellen Greene, as Anne First during her career years, didn't project much personality or conviction.
The most powerful evenings in the theater happen when lessons learned or experiences shared grow out of well realized characters and a good, tight story about what happens to them. The potential for that is there in this first exposure of The First Picture Show. We'll be rooting for that potential to emerge as the production develops.
- Arthur Lazere