Death at Film Forum
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 7, 2008
Eric Bland's new play Death at Film Forum starts out feeling like a parody of reality TV: four fanatical young NYC cinephiles are competing for a $5,000 prize in a Project Runway-style competition hosted by the chicly enigmatic and vaguely European Victhoria. Each week, the contestants must make a video per Victhoria's instructions; each week, one of them will be eliminated until only one is left.
Though he gets the look and feel (and absurdity) of this kind of thing exactly right, Bland also undercuts the inherent suspense by presenting the contest as an extended flashback: in the very first scene, one of the contenders, Charlie, tells us that he's won. And so right from the outset it's evident that more than simple satire is on the agenda. In fact, Death at Film Forum—as densely layered as the work of the film auteurs it trades in—is very complicated and also—despite the fact that it's one of the funniest scripts I've seen all year—very serious.
Charlie, the protagonist, is determined to win, and determined to hold onto his girlfriend, Siobhan, pretty much at any cost. And though lots of information and incident piles up about/around Charlie, at the end of the play that's really still all that we know about him.
Meanwhile, his competitors, Scott, Rich, and Hollis, reveal themselves haphazardly and chaotically through their words, deeds, and videos, which are intermittently screened throughout the play. Hollis desperately wants to become a filmmaker, and has pretty much pinned all of her hopes on being accepted by a film school in Perth, Australia. Rich desperately wants a girlfriend, and has pretty much pinned all of his hopes on being accepted by Hollis. Scott is a Rainer Werner Fassbinder fan who doesn't seem to be able to articulate what he desperately wants. He says he's in love with Charlie, but it's not clear exactly how true that is. He also says he carries a bottle of poison with him all the time (a result, he tells us, of his early attachment to Fassbinder; his father took him to a retrospective when he was just nine years old).
To reveal too much more of what happens in Death at Film Forum would do Bland's remarkable play a disservice. The reality show framework propels the piece; video, with references to Fassbinder (especially in Scott's video, "The Death of Franz Biberkopf"), Godard, and other celebrated auteurs, dots the play and informs its themes importantly. And there is a death; I think I can tell you that without ruining anything.
It is, as I said, extremely funny. The satire is sharp and smart (and not just in terms of Bland's writing; Victhoria's succession of bizarrely ultra-chic outfits, which are uncredited in the program, are show-stoppingly hilarious). Yet the play is, finally, quite sad; in the manner of the films its characters are devoted to, there's a sense of melancholic tension throughout. And when it becomes clear at the end that Bland is actually writing about a generation of would-be artists who appear to have neither inspiration nor modus operandi beyond bald imitation of their idols, well, the impact is pretty potent, pretty severe.
Bland's collaborators all do excellent work. The actors, who play characters sharing their own actual first names, are Sioban Doherty, Scott Eckert, Charlie Hewson, Richard Lovejoy, Victoria Tate, and Hollis Witherspoon. They're great on stage and in the video segments. (Also, invaluably, on video are Gavin Starr Kendall, Cara Marsh Sheffler, Iris Blasi, Brian Barrett, Nicholai Dessypris, Nate Allard, Josephine Decker, Jesse Liebman, Grayson Cox, and Bland himself.) Bland's staging of the 100-minute intermissionless play is swift and clear.
Death at Film Forum, which combines film and theatre in a manner that's seamless and inventive, feels like the perfect entrant in the Brick's Film Festival: A Theatre Festival. But it certainly deserves a life after the festival shuts down.