Fatal Attraction: Theater Review

Fatal Attraction Theatre Royal Haymarket - P 2014
Courtesy of Premiere

Fatal Attraction Theatre Royal Haymarket - P 2014

The plot has been tweaked to give the female characters more dimensions; the treatment is more operatic; and no real bunnies are harmed onstage, but this version still shares some of the same fundamental problems as its source material.

The 1987 infidelity thriller that starred Glenn Close as the psycho with a perm and Michael Douglas as the remorseful philanderer becomes a stage play in London, with Natascha McElhone, Mark Bazeley and Kristin Davis.

LONDON – Remembered for its controversial sexual politics, calculated thrills and high-volume hair, director Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film Fatal Attraction, for better or worse, is seen as one of the defining studio films of its decade. Now it joins the ranks of that randomly selected, but fast-growing club of screen-to-stage translations. And no, it's not a musical. This latest iteration of the story about a two-night stand that threatens to dissolve both a marriage and a house pet has been tweaked just enough to confound audience expectations.

The casting is strong, with Natascha McElhone, Mark Bazeley and Kristin Davis as the three points of the central love triangle. The material has been classed up considerably by Trevor Nunn’s operatic direction and Robert Jones’ lushly stylized set design. Most importantly, original screenwriter James Dearden has adapted the story himself, realigning the balance of sympathies and (warning: spoilers ahead) reinstating the ending he originally wanted for the film but which was famously ditched after negative responses at test screenings. All of which makes for a more refined work, but one that is still, beneath those stately trappings, a lurid, slightly tacky melodrama.

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Will it run? It’s hard to tell these days with London audiences, especially with closures around the West End of supposedly crowd-pleasing fare like The Full Monty, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s poorly received Stephen Ward. Who knows -- maybe contemporary theatergoers, for all their vaunted sophistication, will be no more receptive to Dearden’s blacker conception for the ending of Fatal Attraction than revenge-thirsty test viewers were in 1987. Back then, Paramount took the then-novel step of reshooting the ending to guarantee box-office success. But almost the whole point of this production is its fidelity to Dearden’s original vision, which began as a short film called Diversion he directed in 1979.

Although the presence of laptops and mobile phones here updates the setting to the present day, this is still, deep down, a morality play as traditional in its values as a Victorian gaslight thriller. Sure, considerable effort has gone into making Alex (McElhone) -- the woman for whom Dan (Bazeley) betrays his wife Beth (Davis) -- more sympathetic. It also helps a lot that McElhone gives such a scorching portrayal of a seemingly together career girl frayed by rejection and deranged by loneliness.

Work has been done also to give Alex’s rival, Beth (Anne Archer in the movie), a little backstory, explaining that she’s not just a suburban goodie two-shoes, but someone who made a tough decision to give up her career and become a full-time mother. And finally Dan is a less likeable guy here than Michael Douglas’ incarnation in the film. He's the kind of swaggering lawyer a client would be happy to have in a courtroom on his side but hardly a model husband, needing only to be left alone for a weekend and receive some hard flirtation to cave in to seduction.

Nevertheless, despite all that updating and rounding out, Dan’s is still the play’s anchoring consciousness. He’s the one who delivers great chunks of explicatory narration to the audience, like a wronged protagonist in a film noir confessing to the cops how it all went down. Indeed, for this rejigged ending the cops actually do arrive in time to provide ironic justice ex machina, although many in the audience will wonder just how many holes will be ripped in the prosecution’s case by forensic experts and a good brief.

Judging by Jones’ intimidatingly towering sets, the use of floating, glowing neon-blue flats to carve out different spaces, and especially Paul Pyant’s starkly ominous lighting scheme, director Nunn clearly isn’t much interested in realism. Inspired by the references throughout to Madama Butterfly, another story of a wronged woman, Nunn progressively ratchets up the operatic tone to inflate the material into some kind of elemental tragedy. When Davis’ Beth finds the pet rabbit in the pot and her daughter (played by Sophia Pettit on press night) discovers the creature missing from its cage, their screams are perfectly synchronized, like a duet of atonal horror. By the time the final scene rolls round, with its huge japanoise red sun and an act of seppuku by a character robed in a kimono-like dressing gown, everything’s gone pure Puccini-tastic.

All of which goes quite a long way toward disguising the fact that the core tale is pure tosh -- tosh that thinks it’s dealing with deeper issues, mind you, but tosh nonetheless. As such it might work up a dinner-party-dividing buzz similar to the one that fueled the success of Lyne’s film, which like this play, featured more impressive, fully committed performances than its material deserved.

McElhone, an underrated screen actress whose finest moment was probably playing the wife (another damaged character) in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris, is outstanding here. Vulnerable, girlish, bruised even when she’s at her most sinister, she gets all the notes right and even nails an American East Coast, faintly working-class accent. Bazeley (best known to filmgoers for playing Alastair Campbell in The Queen) struggles in her shadow somewhat at first, and their clinches in the early throes of passion lack a little conviction. But he acquires heft as the production goes along. Although typecast here given she’s best known for playing the nice one on Sex and the City, Davis holds her own as Beth, adding a touch of comic ditziness that lightens the midsection mood.

Speaking of mood lightening, the use of a real rabbit onstage provoked coos of adoration on press night, while the program goes out of its way to assure us that no bunnies were harmed during the rehearsal or production. (Nimble stage hands swap the props just in time for the scene everyone who’s seen the film will be waiting for). Sadly, no magician’s trick can make the metallic undercurrent of banality that pervades the play disappear.

Venue: Theatre Royal Haymarket, London (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Natascha McElhone, Mark Bazeley, Kristin Davis, Jane How, Alex Lowe,
Director: Trevor Nunn
Playwright: James Dearden, based on his screenplay for the film
Set and costume designer: Robert Jones
Lighting designer: Paul Pyant
Sound designers: Paul Groothuis, Ed Clarke
Fight director: Terry King
Special effects consultant: Paul Kieve
Presented by TRH Production, Robert Fox, Patrick Ryecart