True Malkovich

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    The write-up appeared on the front page of the "Styles" section the Sunday after the opening?right under an article by Ginia Bellafante about vintage clothing. ("That Rarity, a Sizzling Opening Night Party," the headline ran.) There was a photograph of Sam Shepard cavorting at Laura Belle with the two hip young stars of the production, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. Shepard had an arm around Hoffman's shoulders. It would have been a good shot?it was interestingly angled?but it was overexposed.

    Hoffman and Reilly are alternating in the roles of Lee and Austin, the two brothers in Shepard's play, a trading-off thought to be a point of interest given the polarity the characters are supposed to represent. The "bad" brother, Lee, the one that John Malkovich played in the 1982 Steppenwolf production at the Cherry Lane, is a dropout desert-rat who lies and steals and bullies. The "good" brother, Austin, the one Gary Sinise played at the Cherry Lane, is a successful television writer, focused and responsible. Word from the print medium is that both actors are brilliant in both roles. Whether they are different from one another I'm not in a position to say, having only seen one pairing. I saw Hoffman in the Malkovich role. But having seen the Cherry Lane revival twice, I feel confident in saying that what the audience stood and cheered for at the end of the performance I attended wasn't just a revival of Shepard's play but also a revival of Malkovich's performance.

    Every single piece of business seemed in place, every "bit," every spastic gesture, inflection or intonation. It was as though Hoffman had gone up to the Theater on Tape collection at the Performing Arts Library and studied Malkovich's routine, the way a 19th-century actor might have studied the famed routine of one of the great actor-managers in some Shakespearean role.

    This needn't have actually happened, of course. The fact that aspects of Hoffman's performance seemed wildly familiar to me need suggest only that, whether consciously or not, he managed to capture the style and spirit and character of Malkovich's. But art has to take you some place you haven't been before. (Though not a sufficient condition, this is certainly a necessary one.) It has to show you something unexpected, unencountered or unexplained?or else make you confront something familiar in a new way. And acting, to qualify as art, has to produce moments in which the spectator is allowed to forget that he is watching a performance.

    What's odd about the idea of Hoffman mimicking Malkovich is, first, that Hoffman is a talented actor in his own right?subtle and gifted?and secondly, that Malkovich's style until recently was utterly sui generis. Indeed, that was its whole point. Malkovich behaved the way no one on Earth ever really behaved and acted the way no one had acted. People found this irresistible. The laconic violence and potential mayhem inherent in his demeanor seemed dangerous and otherworldly, which may be one reason some of his best performances were in roles that entailed a kind of counter-normalcy. As Lenny in Of Mice and Men Malkovich was wonderful; he was aces facing off with an even more famously laconic actor like Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. As the eponymous humanoid in Susan Seidelman's Making Mr. Right he was brilliant. In almost every other role he was virtually hopeless.

    The kind of cultural glitch that True West represents?in which crowds of people respond passionately, night after night, to something so patently phony that it seems to defy reason?is not uncommon in theater, where the mechanics of production and attendance are such that few people can afford anymore not to have a good time. This is part of the way Broadway works nowadays, part of the economic esthetic that obtains. It takes a highly evolved and well-adapted personality to withstand the kind of pressure that Broadway theater puts on the recreational theatergoer. Given the degree of effort and expense involved in going to the theater, most of us are forced to respond with rage or uncritical wonder.

    This circumstance, which began to take hold in the 70s, when Shepard and Steppenwolf were on the rise, had so crystallized by the 80s that it held for Off-Broadway, too. Still, that's not the reason True West became a hit in the 80s, I don't think. What made True West a hit probably was Malkovich's performance. It's worth remembering how phony most stage acting was at the time. In the 70s and 80s acting fashions were still largely influenced by the legacy of Lee Strasberg and Actors Studio "method" (Strasberg died in 1982, a circumstance that somewhat loosened his stranglehold on the profession). "Method" turned performance inward, away from the audience. Steppenwolf acting, which on the part of male members of the company often involved a good deal of lurching about and throwing furniture and hitting oneself, externalized passion. It was as though the young actors in Steppenwolf were saying to the critics and teachers and directors who had for so long governed taste, "Acting is supposed to be about how people behave, watching people respond with different shades of realistic humanity to various situations. That's what it should be. It isn't?not the way you guys do it, so we're going to invent a style of performance that's about misbehavior." That's really what Malkovich was all about: he acted the way we would all like to behave at times. This seemed delicious and illicit. Still, it was phony and desperately limiting.

    It tells you something about fashions in acting that it was Malkovich, not Sinise, whose career took off in the 80s. Now that the public has been better educated?by independent film, by high-quality cable programming, by the absence of tendentious self-serving theoreticians?it is the quiet intelligence of (Steppenwolf) actors like Sinise, Terry Kinney, Laurie Metcalf and Joan Allen that thrill us. Malkovich, meanwhile, seemed to disappear. I remember thinking, the first time I saw a preview for Being John Malkovich, that there was really nowhere else for that career to go.

    In Being John Malkovich, the John Cusack character gets the lucrative notion of charging people admission for the pleasure and privilege of entering Malkovich's brain and being him for a few minutes. It's interesting that Jonze chose to make his protagonist a puppeteer. Julie Taymor, the puppetmaster par excellence, has an expression for the kind of performance her creations exploit, where puppets are built in such a way that the actors manipulating them cannot do so without that process becoming a part of the spectacle. Taymor refers to this as a "double-event," because both aspects of the performance have meaning: what the puppet is doing has narrative value and import; on another level, though, what the puppet-handler is doing contains information of a subliminal character about the nature of creation.

    Actually, most stage-acting entails a "double-event" because it's impossible to be touched or moved in a theater without coming to one's senses and remembering that one is watching a play, realizing that up until a moment ago one had forgotten the fact. What Taymor coined the term to refer to is really a sort of meta- or double double-event, one that makes manifest and explicit the bilevel nature of theatrical experience, the fact that everything represented on a stage both is and is not what it purports to be, simultaneously.

    The most common forms of theater that make explicit use of this multilevel quality are those that require a performer to represent a character of different gender or sexual preference: drag, for instance, and Shakespearean comedy. Like drag, Elizabethan theater relied on the fact that the spectator would have had to be at times aware on some level of watching a man perform the role of a woman pretending to be a man. 3rd Rock from the Sun, the comedy series in which the Kristen Johnston?a real-life statuesque beauty?has to play a male alien inhabiting the body of a statuesque beauty, is a more mainstream contemporary example, but the most apt and ostentatious one was the film Being John Malkovich itself, where the actor who actually is John Malkovich was required to play other characters inhabiting his own body. It was one of the film's most engaging ironies that, owing to this conceit, Malkovich, the actor who had rarely really had to act before, was forced to perform brilliantly.

    If the Jonze film took the unreality of Malkovich's style of acting as its comic premise, its serious premise (to the extent that it had one) was that art either has to partake of verisimilitude or else comment on it. The film opened with an extraordinary sequence in which a marionette seemed to dance a ballet of exceptional nuance and expressiveness. Later, when Malkovich's body was supposed to be being inhabited by Cusack, the puppeteer performed the same dance using Malkovich's body. If you did the math, what you were watching amounted to Malkovich doing a parody of a travesty of an imitation of humanity. The real joke, which the script seemed to bring Malkovich in on (Jonze had Malkovich call himself an overrated hack, or something), was that the bulk of Malkovich's previous work had really amounted to a travesty of humanity all along.

    Hoffman's performance in True West is really a sort of double nonevent, being a replica of something that (however intentionally) was only a poor imitation to begin with. It's possible that Reilly's performance is more interesting, that it somehow reinvents the Shepard role Malkovich made famous. A photograph I saw somewhere made me think this might be so. Just from the stance and aspect of the two actors was the suggestion that Hoffman would have more material to bring to the role of the "boring" brother than Reilly did, and that Reilly has some genuinely manic streak that would enable him to put his own stamp on the Malkovich role. Does it matter? I can't feel that it does.

    Shepard's play purports to be about verisimilitude: the central conflict that erupts between the two brothers has to do with a story Lee manages to sell to Austin's producer. We never actually hear it, though we're brought tantalizingly to its borders a couple of times. The debate between the two brothers is over whether it has authenticity.

    The last two times I saw True West, I remember thinking the first-act curtain was the best thing about it. Lee is dictating his story to Austin who, after a long battle has finally agreed to act as Lee's amanuensis. As the lights went down, Malkovich was describing a chase scene: two men in frantic semi-self-conscious pursuit of one another.

    In the production at Circle in the Square, there is no intermission and you get the feeling it's because they knew that in that strangely designed house where even genuine energy dissipates, they'd never get people back into the theater. What comes across more than anything else in this revival is how shallow and banal Shepard's concerns really are. He doesn't care about which brother is more interesting or which brother is right, he cares which one is going to sell a screenplay. The odd thing is that the content of the argument itself, which made sense 15 years ago?it was as much about whether Lee's story was commercial as about whether it was authentic?is completely out of date. The story that is supposed to seem so offbeat and edgy doesn't sound like such a bad bet anymore. Tons more unlikely sounding stuff has been made and celebrated. The joke is that taste has caught up with Shepard and passed him by. It's True West that now looks like a pilot for a sitcom.

    I reckon that Hoffman is giving Shepard's play the performance it deserves.