Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Holding the (Spider) Man

Australia’s best-known gay coming of age/AIDS play has made it to America’s west coast. Holding the Man — dramatized in 2006 from Timothy Conigrave’s 1995, award-winning memoir — opened May 10th as the inaugural production of the Australian Theatre Company (ATC). It is running through June 29th at Los Angeles’ 99-seat Matrix Theatre.

Generally riveting if occasionally excessive, Tommy Murphy’s script recounts the 15-year love affair between aspiring actor Conigrave and star athlete John Caleo in fairly straightforward, chronological fashion. From Conigrave’s coming out and Catholic schoolboy crush on Caleo, through Caleo’s eventual reciprocation of Conigrave’s affections and gradual acceptance of his own homosexuality, to both men’s untimely deaths from AIDS, Holding the Man leaves few stones unturned. While frequently very funny, their story is heartbreaking in the end. A friend who accompanied me to opening night and who had nursed his partner prior to his cancer-related death several years ago was largely unable to speak after the performance, so deeply moved was he by the play’s emotional familiarity.

The LA production’s all-Australian cast is superb. Nate Jones (interviewed here earlier this month) effectively channels Conigrave’s widely reported but endearing mix of boyish enthusiasm, narcissism and tactlessness. As Caleo, handsome Adam J. Yeend stunningly approximates the ravages of AIDS through his fairly simple employment of oversized clothing, a halting gait, and the climactic revelation of a shaved head beneath the hairpiece he wears for most of the show. The remaining cast members — Cameron Daddo, Luke O’Sullivan, Adrienne Smith and Roxane Wilson — play a total of 47 characters of both genders with impressive, often comical virtuosity.

Under director Larry Moss, the production may be pitched too high in terms of both the actors’ energy and volume. Some lines were spoken too quickly to be understood, and the dialogue during even quiet moments was seemingly shouted out. This could have been unique to opening night and the cast members’ excitement but, if not, I believe it will benefit audiences and all concerned if the cast brings it down a notch in future performances. A second criticism is the production’s odd use of two puppets, a miniature Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and a full-size male AIDS patient. Whether the script calls for them or Moss introduced them here, they struck me as unnecessary. The use of the man-with-AIDS puppet during Caleo’s death scene could even be construed as insulting to Yeend, since he remains on stage and provides the puppet’s diminishing “respirations.” Couldn’t Yeend have remained in bed and acted his character’s decline to its bitter end? I don’t see how that would be in any way less effective than the puppet.

There were a number of Australians in the audience opening night and they were obviously, warmly familiar with Holding the Man as evidenced by their hearty laughter and proud ovations. It is by no means a play only for gay theatergoers. Despite this production’s perceived shortcomings, anyone who has experienced love and loss will find much to appreciate.

Love and loss also figure prominently in the current movie blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In fact, they end up figuring too prominently and ultimately detract from what would otherwise be an enjoyable comic book romp. Spidey/Peter Parker, once again embodied by the sleek and sly Andrew Garfield, is still grappling with his mysterious abandonment as a youngster by his birth parents as well as the more recent death of his beloved Uncle Ben. He is also haunted, quite literally, by the specter of his girlfriend’s police chief father (Denis Leary), to whom Parker made a solemn promise to stay away from his daughter, Gwen (Emma Stone). Alas, Peter hasn’t exactly been keeping his promise.

The forces of evil, meanwhile, continue to grow in good old NYC. Whereas the seemingly omnipotent Oscorp increasingly serves as their umbrella organization, the individual baddies here are Electro (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in misunderstood yet sinister mode); Aleksei Sytsevich (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), who will become Spidey’s classic nemesis The Rhino by film’s end; and the Green Goblin, a.k.a. Peter’s former bestie Harry Osborn, now played by Dane DeHaan instead of James Franco.

Despite the number of villains and conspiracies at work in the screenplay (which is credited to no less than four writers), they actually aren’t what makes this film an overlong and wearying 2 ½ hours. Rather, it is the script’s continuous stream of break up/make up/miscommunicate/don’t communicate moments between Peter and Gwen that pad the running time. And while Garfield and Stone have charisma to spare, both individually and when together (they are a couple in real life too), their dialogue here often seems improvised and too cutesy. A leaner script and/or more judicious editing in regard to their relationship would have made a better movie.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point to say things don’t end well for Gwen in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. While I’ll miss Emma Stone in the unavoidable sequel already set for 2016, unless she makes a cameo as a glaring ghost à la Leary, I pray part 3 won’t include a romance for Peter handled as over-indulgently as the one here. Yes, Mary Jane Watson (reportedly to be played by Divergent’s Shailene Woodley), I’m thinking of you.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Holding the Man: B
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: C+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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