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The limits of nostalgia are well illustrated by the new off-Broadway production of Terms of Endearment, Dan Gordon’s adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel and the 1983 Oscar-winning film version by James L. Brooks that it inspired. While the essential elements of the comic tearjerker depicting the decades-long relationship between an overbearing mother and her beleaguered daughter remain intact, much of the story’s effectiveness has been lost in this translation. Other than to capitalize on the famous title, this cynical exercise has little reason for being.
You have to pity the production’s talented cast, which includes Molly Ringwald as Aurora Greenway, Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar-winning role. (And for those of you incredulous that the former “Brat Pack” actress is playing the part, be advised that Ringwald is only one year younger than MacLaine was when she made the film.) Ringwald does fine work, as do Hannah Dunne as the daughter, Emma, and Jeb Brown as the licentious former astronaut Garrett Breedlove. But these performers do not come close to erasing the memories of MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson.
The play dutifully recreates the key dramatic and comic moments of the movie beat for beat, making it feel somewhat like a theatrical CliffsNotes. Some of the material still works beautifully, such as the lengthy, tension-filled courtship between Aurora, rediscovering the joys of sex, and Garrett, who finds himself emotionally entangled despite his best efforts at keeping a distance. And the loving but contentious mother-daughter relationship — Aurora, trying to talk her daughter out of marrying the “limited” Flap Horton (Denver Milord), tells her, “You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage” — still resonates.
But even though much of the dialogue is retained — it’s still fun to hear Aurora seducing Garret by inviting him to her bedroom to “see my Renoir” — the material feels flattened. It’s certainly not helped by Michael Parva’s unimaginative direction on the small, overly cramped stage. Although, to be fair, not even the most brilliant director could figure out a way to replicate such terrific scenes from the movie as Garrett joyfully driving Aurora on the beach in his open convertible. Sorry, but an offhand reference to driving “through the surf” just doesn’t cut it.
Ringwald, looking terrific in what seems like an endless parade of costume changes, does well in the play’s quieter moments. But she lacks the force-of-nature energy and larger-than-life quality that MacLaine brought to the part. It’s a performance that makes her character’s domination of her daughter seem more simply irritating then smothering. Dunne (Mozart in the Jungle), too, fails to approximate Winger’s fiery intensity, with the result that when Emma is diagnosed with terminal cancer we don’t feel it quite as deeply as we do when watching the film, even for the umpteenth time. Brown successfully manages to avoid doing a Nicholson impression, bringing original comic flair to his role, but he still inevitably suffers by comparison.
The play was originally planned as a post-Dallas stage vehicle for Linda Gray, who toured with it in the U.K. in 2007 and remains attached here as an associate producer. But there’s probably a reason that production went no further. Without any kind of fresh perspective or reinterpretation of the iconic source material, Terms of Endearment mostly feels like one of the endless knockoffs of popular movies and old TV shows (Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, MacGyver, etc.) currently littering our television screens.
Venue: 59E59 Theaters, New York
Cast: Molly Ringwald, Hannah Dunne, Jeb Brown, Jessica Digiovanni, Denver Milord, John C. Vennema
Playwright: Dan Gordon, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry and the film by James L. Brooks
Director: Michael Parva
Set designer: David L. Arsenault
Costume designer: Michael McDonald
Lighting designer: Graham Kindred
Sound designer: Quentin Chiappetta
Presented by The Director’s Company, Julian Schlossberg, Roy Furman, Harold Newman, Florence Kaufman, Andrew Tobias, in association with Invictus Theater Company and Linda Gray
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