Saturday 14 January 2012


Ken Simon (L), Victoria Anne Miller (R), Bunny Lake Is Missing

So, last night I went to the theater. The reason why I have to write about it here on my own site is because otherwise it would be a massive conflict of interest, considering that it was at the Brick, where almost every play I've ever written and/or directed was staged, and where a very large chunk of my acting took place as well. Among the creative personnel of the play I saw, an adaptation of (mostly) the novel and (to a lesser extent) movie Bunny Lake Is Missing, are a number of good friends of mine, so it's up to you to decide whether I'm being objective. I mean, I am. (Ed. Note: blah blah blah “inasmuch as any human being is capable of objectivity at all” yeah yeah etc etc)

Anyway, a ways back when my friend Ken Simon told me he wanted to do a stage version of Bunny Lake Is Missing, I was like “AWESOME” because I'd seen the movie and could talk your ear off for days about Otto Preminger's cinema de je ne sais quoi, because oh man when Otto Preminger was behind a camera really good things happened, and his pictures were often greater than the sum of their parts and had an ineffable something extra. First of all, dude directed Laura, and Laura's one of the greatest goddamn movies of all time. All the awesome is right up front in that one, with Dana Andrews puttin' in work as a cop who gets a little in over his head investigating a case involving Gene Tierney (Gene Tierney bends the corners of the fucking universe in this movie), and there's Clifton Webb (!!!), and basically you either need to see Laura if you haven't yet or watch it again if you have because Laura's Laura.

A lot of people (including, in weaker moments, myself) would have just hung 'em up there and then, but Otto Preminger wasn't done being awesome. The next twenty-plus years saw a whole bunch of really well-composed shots, willingness to explore transgressive themes, and a whole bunch of “so and so was really good in that . . . like, better than normal even” performances. And then there was Bunny Lake Is Missing.

It's not one of his best movies, but a) the bar was fucking high and b) it influenced a lot of better movies; the bit with having the Zombies be in it doing a couple songs was one of the first instances of that “hey, let's have a band be in the movie doing a couple songs” trend like when Antonioni got the Yardbirds for Blow-Up, which trend Woody Allen made fun of getting the Lovin' Spoonful for What's Up Tiger Lily. Andrew Sarris thought Bunny Lake was good and Andrew Sarris liked lots of really good stuff. It has Laurence Olivier in paycheck mode (which weirdly probably worked better for the movie than Laurence Olivier in “I FUCKING MEAN IT” mode, and for all I know he might have made a conscious choice to play the role as if he was in paycheck mode for that reason. He was Laurence Olivier, after all.) Carol Lynley holds it down fairly effectively in the lead (and looking at her is never a chore), but it's Keir Dullea's creepy incesty performance that's most memorable; he quietly had a pretty good run there in the mid-60s playing weird guys, culminating with 2001. The picture gets a little goofy in places and departs a bit far from the realistic or even plausible, but it's stylishly executed. I mean, it's Otto Preminger. Goofy, unrealistic, and implausible is no match for him, Otto Preminger'll make you a good movie out of that.

The movie departs from the book in a number of ways, most notably the setting, transplanting the action from New York to London. And where it ends up being a kind of proto-Swinging London picture, the book, published in 1957, was very much a thing of Old New York. The play, taking more from the book than the movie, comes across as a film adaptation of the book the year of its release: while part of the initial period of classical noir, it feels like a hybrid between that and what they called “women's pictures” at the time, but like the kind of “women's picture” Douglas Sirk made, with lots of nice lighting and Technicolor but a prevailing self-conscious sense of the material's limitations and ridiculousness.

We open with Blanche Lake going to pick up her daughter Bunny from nursery school, only to be told (by a combination of unseen voices and a couple actual people; nota bene, the unseen voices are a lot more informative and certain than those of the actual on-stage actors. Just file that one away for future reference) that Bunny has never been a student at the school . . . and that there's no proof that she's ever existed. DUM DUM DUMMMMMM!!!!

One difference between the play and the previous iterations of this material—that all friendship and so forth aside I thought was pretty fucking brilliant—is that the design and performances actually do an excellent job of convincing the audience that Blanche Lake really is nuts. As Blanche, Victoria Anne Miller teeters right on the exact median between concerned young mother and delusional cuckoo, but it's mainly the choice to have so many of the people she goes around talking to about her (allegedly) missing daughter be invisible voices. Even though I'd read the book (a really long time ago) and seen the movie (not quite as long a time ago, but it was still a while back) this design choice—part of a brilliant goddamn sound design job by Chris Chappell—had me wondering whether the big reveal in the play was going to be that Blanche Lake was making the whole thing up. That's powerful stuff right there.

But—spoilers for those who haven't read the book or seen the movie or play—Bunny Lake really is missing. In what appeared in the moment to be an awkward bit of plotting, we step back from Blanche's POV and have a scene with two guys—shrink Ken Simon and flamboyant writer Walter Brandes—who are revealed to not be conspirators in the Bunny-napping as Blanche had thought but just a couple dudes on that “oh, you silly hysterical woman” trip. They swing into action to help Blanche, and everything turns out okay and she's reunited with her missing daughter. The climax is a bit sudden and way too neat, but a number of touches point to the writer, director, and cast being aware of how artificial the climax is, foremost among which is Justin Holcomb's “I seriously do not give a fuck” cop delivering the infodump of just how the hell they managed to find Bunny and just why the hell they didn't believe she even existed in three parts, having to be summoned back to finish expositing. Holcomb's vaudevillian tightness makes the scene, and the pulpy material, quite funny.

The play does a good job of simultaneously acknowledging that the material is kind of ridiculous without ever laughing at it, an important balance, because really. If you're going to do a show just to laugh at it, ya know, go fuck yourself. You're not above the material. But maintaining a bit of perspective on the artificiality of the thing while simultaneously reveling in it—Josephine Cashman's supporting turn as a martini-drinking hardass is a good example: she seems to be having a great deal of fun with the role while never talking down to it—makes for an entertainment that's self-aware without being cloyingly so, and keeps things light.

This Bunny Lake Is Missing is a fine piece of stage noir, with excellent design (as well as Chappell's terrific sound design, Amanda Woodward's lights suit the mood very well) and with the exception of the (unavoidably) cumbersome scene changes, it's a crisply directed—collaboratively by adapter Simon and Patrice Miller, who's rapidly building a body of work in indie theatre on which she can hang any variety of hats but most certainly her own—piece of work that will hopefully see a more extended run than its current (ending today) two-week run at the Brick. With the evolution of cinema and theatre, classic noir, with its long takes and shadowy visual aesthetic, almost plays better on stage now. Maybe I'm just saying that because this show was good, maybe I'm just saying that because I want to see more snappy dialogue and awesome costumes onstage, whatever. Bunny Lake Is Missing was a lot of fun.

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