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A CurtainUp Review
The Conversation

Sometimes it's nice to know what they're talking about.—Stanley, Harry Caul's partner, expressing curiosity about the young couple whose lunch-time rendez-vous in a local park they've been hired to target with their eavesdropping equipment.

I don't care what they're talking about. All I want is just a nice fat recording.—Harry, who before long becomes even more curious than his partner about what the couple is talking about and to what use his tape will be put.
David Morgentale as Harry Caul
David Morgentale as Harry Caul (Photo: Peter Sylvester)
They're back! The actors, writers and directors who champion dark, gritty theater under the tile of 29th Street Rep. During the two years the company has been on hiatus, the area surrounding their tiny theater has gone through quite a bit of gentrification. But not the Twenty-Niners. You still climb a grungy stairs to get to an inelegant but cozy lobby papered with photos testifying to the 29th Street Rep's long and impressive history.

To celebrate their welcome return to the off-off-Broadway scene they've chosen a theatrical adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 The Conversation by Chicago actress and writer Kate Harris. While this surreally sinister Coppola film would seem to be a perfect fit for the company's penchant for pitch black plays, it's an enormous challenge to make this noir-ish portrait of a creepy surveillance specialist works on stage and without a lot of staging bells and whistles.

Harry Caul, the saxophone playing, obsessive loner and technological eavesdropper is a role made to order for David Morgentale who has created a gallery of memorable stage portraits for the company (e.g: Bobby Supreme, In the Belly of the Beast and Killer Joe). While the shadow of Gene Hackman is hard to shake off, Morgentale, a friendly charmer any time you bump into him in the theater lobby, does manage to transform himself into a deliciously scary weirdo— the kind of man only a naive young loser like Amy (Amber Gallery) the young girl he beds occasionally but rarely talks to, would get involved with. He is at his most mesmerizing when he rises from Amy's bed and in a dreamlike sequence gives us a glimpse into the depth of Harry's inner torment.

If you park your memories of Hackman's Caul and the film generally, you'll appreciate and enjoy this "live" Harry Caul and how director Leo Farley, a 29th Street Rep founding member, has created a production that somehow pays tribute to the Coppola film and catches its darkness despite the limitations of the tiny stage. Farley has wisely stuck to the 1972 time frame and made no attempt to update the technology, for this was never about gadgetry. Instead The Conversation was and, sad to say, remains an Orwellian wakeup call about the willingness of those at the top of the power ladder to use anything goes methods to control others —and the ease with which they trap people like Caul to persuade themselves to do their bidding.

Mark Symczak's two level platform, an occasionally transparent wall and a few book shelves fluidly connote the various San Francisco locations we visit in our own surveillance of Caul, his colleagues, clients and watched subjects. The abstract all black scenery requires viewers to use their imagination but it works well, especially as supported by Joseph Fosco's mood matching sound effects and music, Stewart Wagner's spooky lighting and Rebecca Ming's costumes which includes the same dark plastic raincoat that Morgentale, like Hackman on screen, seems to practically live in.

Ms. Harris's adaptation follows the film's plot but without a camera to open things up realistically so that it's up to the actors to capture this secretive, jittery and mistrustful world — most daunting, is Morgentale's task. His cool, mission accomplished oriented operative must gradually reveal his festering guilt and neurosis and fall victim to the Kafkaesque nightmare of becoming the watched instead of the watcher.

The play's opening is a nice coup de theater moment that has Caul standing stage center as the other eight actors begin to enter and surround him, each one asking "What's the Matter Harry?" It's a little like a Twilight Zone version of the "Bobby, Bobby" opening of Stephen Sondheim's Company.

The striking opening is followed by a rather slow moving patch as Harris's script piles on the details about both the case that unhinges Harry's equilibrium and the private but never really tension free moments that define the narrow focus of his life. Thus we hear the chatter of street noises, snippets of the conversations between Ann and Mark (Leigh Feldpaunch and Craig Butta), the apparently adulterous couple Harry and his partner Stanley (James E. Smith) have been hired to eavesdrop on. We also see Caul in his apartment, a place with enough locks to feel like a fortress. His unlisted telephone is kept hidden in a box with a fake book front, but he does unwind with some riffs on his saxophone. We watch him visiting his girl friend and even going to confession. Of course, it's these scenes that most telling reveal Caul's ever present paranoid guardedness and it's the intensity of this paranoia that underscores the drama of the case that breaks down his imperviousness to the potentially horrendous damage his tapes might end up causing.

Without going into more details about the mystery revolving around the taping of the young couple circling the park as they circle around the problem of their future, the stage is populated by more than a dozen characters since some of the eight actors take on several roles. The standout is Tim Corcoran as a sleazy surveillance equipment dealer in town for a convention.

Unfortunately, the stage adaptation, like the film, requires the audience to suspend disbelief about something Harry does which is completely counter to his characterization. Unless he's drunk or drugged (of which there's no indication), it's hard to believe that a man who's so compulsively secretive that he practically goes ballistic when he discovers that someone has his phone number would allow anyone to come to the warehouse where he keeps his equipment and tapes.

This adaptation was a chance for Coppola to allow this flaw in his film to be corrected. Ms. Harris was either willing to accept Harry's temporarily mellow party mood or obtained permission to adapt the screenplay with the proviso that there would be no plot changes. Too bad, for what made the movie a very good but not a great thriller, also keeps this stage version from overcoming its inherent limitations by making that lapse in Harry's usually guarded and anti-social behavior more credible.

All things considered, The Conversation is an interesting experiment in giving an off-screen life to an on screen golden oldie. Here's hoping that this is the first of many more 29th Street Rep productions— and without another lengthy interval.

Directed by Leo Farley
Cast: David Mogentale (Harry Caul), Tim Corcoran (William B. Moran), Amber Gallery (Amy, Secretary, Angela, Maid), James E. Smith (Stanley, Director) Thomas Wehrle (Paul Meyers), Julianne Carpenter (Meredith, Secretary), Jack Dillon (Matthew Harrison) , Leigh Feldpausch (Ann, Female Tenant), Craig Butta (Mark, hotel clerk). (Stanley)
Sets: Mark Symczak
Costumes: Rebecca Ming
Lights: Stewart Wagner
Sound: Joseph Fosco
Production Stage Manager: Sabrina Morabito
Tix are $20 through SmartTix (212) 868-4444 (btw. 7th & 8th Aves.) Running Time: Approx. 2 hours plus an intermission
29th Street Rep, 212 West 29th Street 212-868-4444
From 4/03/08; opening 4/10/08 ; closing 5/04/08.
Tickets, $20; Thursdays Pay what you can
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 5th press preview

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