The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
March 19, 2010
The Internet works at a remarkable pace. In January, screenwriter Adam Bertocci earned blogosphere celebrity status for his Shakespearean adaptation of the 1998 Coen brothers' cult classic The Big Lebowski. Here not three months later is the New York premiere, produced by Frank Cwiklik's DM Theatrics. The film's plot, starting with mistaken identity and driven by a series of improbable mishaps and contrivances, is not that different from that of a Shakespearean comedy. Moreover, what makes the film work, despite a plot that is loosely constructed at best, are its richly painted characters and the infinitely quotable poetry of its dialogue—again, much like a Shakespearean comedy. Unfortunately, idea and execution do not always get along.
Bertocci's text is a nearly line-by-line translation of the film into Shakespeare's English. While often quite clever, too much faith was put in the film's already meandering plot to tie it together, and so the final product lacks structural integrity as a play unto itself. The humor is primarily built around moments of "Hey, remember that time in the film when..." The comic dissonance of recognizing familiar jokes in archaic language has a limited mileage, and without a more substantial foundation, is perhaps best left to the realm of sketches, YouTube videos, and McSweeney's lists. Cwiklik's direction does little to remedy this lack of centering, as the show leaps eagerly from gag to gag with little thought for dramaturgical consistency. The creators appear to have lost sight of the forest for the trees.
Without a strong unifying principle, the designs flounder in inconsistency. Steph Cathro's costumes are all reasonable choices independently of one another, but show little rhyme or reason as a whole. Making Vietnam veteran Walter into a former crusader is a clever exchange of recognizable archetypes, and smartly sets up later jokes about his conversion to Judaism. However, dressing The Jesus as a matador, while funny in relation to John Turturro's phenomenal performance in the original, comes totally out of left field in the context of this production. The lights seemed far more interesting in lighting the actors' feet and torsos than their heads, and so much of the show is spent in the dark with occasional interludes under a ham-fisted red wash for moments of intensity. The sound does little more to provide organization, alternating between cues lifted directly from the film or generic guitar rock which underwhelmingly underscores scenes. The projection design provides a fast and easy means to make the necessarily cinematic leaps in location, which begs the question of why the show was bogged down by so many blackout transitions.
There are inspired moments within the confusion, however. The use of the Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings cover of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" during the famous "Gutterballs" dream sequence is a great way to reference the original while making it their own and making the tempo more amenable to the energetic (if somewhat literally adapted) dance number. Josh Mertz's performance as The Knave is a studied tribute to Jeff Bridges's The Dude, and Brianna Tyson's recreation of Julianne Moore's quirky cadence is pitch-perfect.
The whole theater, both on stage and in the house, was pervaded by a clear love for the original film. But that love seems to have prevented Cwiklik and his team from creating a piece of theater that stands on its own. It felt like being at a midnight sing-along stage show of The Rocky Horror Picture Show without the film itself. Sure, the fans will have fun throwing rice around and singing "Time Warp," but the whole experience lacks substance.