The Critics: Keep the day job, Quentin

THEATRE 2
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I DON'T doubt that Quentin Tarantino loves actors - as a director, he stands in awe of his performers, to the extent that he cuts them too much slack. As an actor, he demonstrates even less discipline. Back in the early 1990s, when Tarantino was being prematurely hailed as the saviour of American cinema, his presence in duds like Sleep With Me and Destiny Turned on the Radio could be seen as acts of goodwill towards struggling directors. But when he started devising his own feeble excuses to appear on camera - Four Rooms, From Dusk Till Dawn - the egotism was hard to miss and even harder to swallow. Still, tenacity and a thick skin pay off - Tarantino now has a lead role in a Broadway play.

Wait Until Dark - which stars Marisa Tomei and features Tarantino's first stage appearance since his adolescence - arrives in New York after a commercially successful but critically calamitous four weeks in Boston. It's not, to begin with, an especially auspicious-sounding project - a revival of Frederick Knotts's competent but musty thriller, which enjoyed a lengthy Broadway run in 1966 with Lee Remick and Robert Duvall, and was filmed the following year with Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. The set-up is simple and neatly sadistic - a blind woman is tormented by three thugs who're looking for a missing stash of heroin (and who're prepared to engage in some absurdly elaborate role play to find it). Suspension of disbelief is critical, but in this careless and awkwardly paced production, it's never really an option.

In the film, Alan Arkin played Harry Roat, the remorseless chief villain, with understated, simmering menace. As played by Tarantino, he's a bad motherfucker - or, more to the point, a bad actor's version of a bad motherfucker. Modelled on the director's self-promoted public image - motormouthed tough guy - Roat marks his entrance with a torrent of swaggering pseudo-homeboy lingo, posturing like he's just wandered off the set of Superfly. It's a show-stopper all right - a skin-crawling and spectacularly misjudged one, evoking Tarantino's problematic, fetishistic relationship with black America, which some have classified as unconscious racism. As the play drags on, Roat, in an attempt to fool the blind Suzy, slips in and out of a number of guises - each comically unconvincing and not dissimilar from the others. Tarantino-snipers will have a field day, and indeed, the production, on the whole, doesn't lack for targets.

Tomei has endured her share of malicious potshots (after she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1993 for My Cousin Vinny, prevailing over Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright, rumours started to circulate that septuagenarian presenter Jack Palance had called out the wrong name). She is, by all accounts, a deft and intelligent actress - off-Broadway audiences will tell you so - but her part in Wait Until Dark seems a product of bad casting and worse direction (by Leonard Foglia). Her interpretation of blindness involves, for the most part, a vacant, cheerful expression. The film's effectiveness had much to do with Audrey Hepburn's vulnerability. Tomei's Suzy is very different - a tough cookie, more than a match for Roat, and unaccountably chirpy to boot. (Recounting how she lost her eyesight, she practically giggles, "An automobile accident!")

Utterly devoid of tension, the play relies on generically ominous music to create some semblance of suspense. Neither the director nor the actors seem equal to the moderate technical challenge of the climax. Played out largely in pitch darkness, it could be nail-biting stuff in the right hands; but what we get is clumsy cat-and-mouse burlesque, with much hysterical screaming about gasoline and matches and kitchen knives. No doubt familiar with Tarantino's movies, in which sadism tends to stand in for humour, the audience responded with nervous laughter. Though I'm sure some were actually amused by the sudden degeneration into farce.

The revelation here isn't that Tarantino's a bad actor (who actually thinks otherwise?), but just how committed a bad actor he is - there's almost a perverse integrity to it. And yet, he lacks the irresistible cluelessness of a classically bad actor like Keanu Reeves. Tarantino's talents lie elsewhere, and his severely delusional acting aspirations are potentially career-threatening. He told the Boston Globe last month that he was doing theatre to "scratch that itch". For his sake and ours, you should hope that over the next four months he scratches it into oblivion.

New York City Brooks Atkinson Theater (212 307 4100), to Jul.

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