‘No Pay, Nudity’: Film Review

No Pay, Nudity - Still - H - 2016
Courtesy of Monterey Media
Winningly bittersweet despite its frustratingly slight lapses.

Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane and Frances Conroy star in a comic drama about aging stage actors who spend most of their days offstage, kibitzing.

As its title suggests, the indignities of life on the thespian fringe are central to No Pay, Nudity. So too is the camaraderie of the New York actors, well past their showbiz prime, who anchor this bittersweet comedy. Lee Wilkof makes his big-screen directing debut after more than four decades of acting on stage and screen, and he shows deep affection for his characters as they continue to love a business that doesn’t necessarily love them back.

The screenplay by Ethan Sandler builds toward potential breakthrough moments only to gloss over them, but the performances dig deeper, especially Gabriel Byrne’s turn as Lester Rosenthal, stage name Lawrence Rose. With his doleful gaze and ill-fitting suit, Byrne delivers a portrait of uncertain hopefulness, by unpredictable turns weary, bitter and openhearted.

Lester was once a soap opera regular — playing a doctor, no less — and, as Nathan Lane’s occasional voiceover narration and Byrne’s every gesture inform us, Lester and his career have never been the same since The Lives We Live killed off his character. Between auditions — he offers an especially dispirited Lear — and a gig reading the paper to a blind man, Lester hangs out at the Actors Equity lounge, a fittingly stage-bound waiting area overseen by an imperious sourpuss (the late J.R. Horne, whose credits includes a couple of Coen brothers movies).

While younger, busier actors move in and out of the space, Lester and his friends sit, gossip and, without making a fuss about it, keep one another grounded. They joke semi-nervously about the business of networking and being seen while navigating the territory between then (their heyday) and now (the undefined space they occupy). Lane’s Herschel, a wonderful amalgam of alarmingly high-waisted pants and withering pronouncements, holds court, a not-quite-plausible backstory explaining why he stopped acting. Frances Conroy exudes tender joy and kindness in the underwritten part of Andrea, whose toy poodle, Papp, accompanies her everywhere. Guilelessly inserting himself into the sexagenarian mix is whippersnapper Reginald (Jon Michael Hill), who’s new to the city and the biz, and a nice counterpoint to Lester’s slow-simmering jealousies, which inevitably reach a boil.

Beyond the weekday showbiz subculture he depicts, Wilkof offers unfussy glimpses into middle-class-artist Manhattan with production designer Maki Takenouchi’s character-defining apartments and the weathered-outre costumes by Michelle Matland (Academy Award winner Ann Roth is credited as the film’s “special costume consultant”).

Yet even as the director and cinematographer Brian Lannin keep the lounge scenes from becoming static, the drama itself could have used more movement, more friction. Screenwriter Sandler (who appears in the mildly goofy role of a food-truck proprietor) devises family discord for Lester. But after intriguing introductions, these blood relationships feel glossed over as the movie rushes to wrap things up on a hopeful note.

Lester’s ex (J. Smith-Cameron) doesn’t hesitate to tell him how terrible she thinks he looks, and their Brooklynite daughter (Zoe Perry) urges him to take a waiter’s job because it would provide a more steady income. Given their lack of faith in him, it’s no wonder he spends most of his waking hours in a blank, gray room with nonworking actors — but actors nonetheless.

Along the way, the film stares unblinkingly, but with tenderness, at late-middle-age questions of career, identity and the torturous question of whether to let go of a dream that’s not paying off. The matter of success and its flip side, professional jealousy, is dramatized in a range of encounters. There’s the hale, hearty, job-offering visit of a theater-world friend (Loudon Wainwright), the increasingly high-profile opportunities for a more focused lounge habitue (Boyd Gaines), and the wowed admiration of a former high-school classmate (Valerie Mahaffey). Yet however enthralled she is with Lester’s showbiz stories, his unfashionable friend from unfashionable Ohio is unequivocally happier than he is. Back in New York, Lester gets a romantic interest (Donna Murphy) whose idea of success is bracingly self-defined.

Byrne’s performance is a masterful symphony of illuminating off-key chords as Lester confronts the painfully late-in-life question of whether acting is his true calling. It’s a fascinating and difficult self-confrontation. If the film proves too ready to resolve that confrontation smilingly, Byrne provides its underground charge with his offhand, off-center poignancy.

Distributor: Monterey Media
Production: A Day in the Life Films in association with Cliff Chenfeld
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane, Frances Conroy, Donna Murphy, Boyd Gaines, Jon Michael Hill, J.R. Horne, Valerie Mahaffey, J. Smith-Cameron, Loudon Wainwright, Zoe Perry, Ellen Foley, John Bedford Lloyd
Director: Lee Wilkof
Screenwriter: Ethan Sandler
Producer: Tani Cohen
Executive producers: Cliff Chenfeld, Seth Greenland, Lee Wilkof, Drew Greenland, Rick Millenthal, Loris Ferer Cohen
Director of photography: Brian Lannin
Production designer: Maki Takenouchi
Costume designer: Michelle Matland
Editor: Sylvia Waliga
Composer: Craig Richey
Casting: Shana Landsburg
Special costume consultant: Ann Roth

Rated R, 87 minutes