This week brings two attempts at spinning 1980s Oscar gold into stage-worthy vehicles for stars of a certain magnitude. Tomorrow’s opening will be Jason Sudeikis chancing the Robin Williams teacher in Dead Poets Society; for this evening, it’s Molly Ringwald and Hannah Dunne playing Aurora and Emma Greenway, mother-daughter roles created by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in James L. Brooks’ 1983 multi-hanky Terms Of Endearment. Brooks took three Oscars for the film as producer, director and writer, with best acting statuettes to MacLaine’s selfish, overbearing mother and Jack Nicholson as the paunchy, hard-living former astronaut next door whose resistible charms she happily succumbs to.
Dan Gordon’s stage adaptation, based on Brooks’ screenplay and the original Larry McMurtry novel, has been knocking around the provinces for a decade and was used in a UK tour. Its star was Linda Gray, the doyenne of Dallas, listed here as an associate producer of an off-Broadway production at 59E59 Theatres backed by veteran producers Julian Schlossberg and Roy Furman. They’ve afforded the curious an opportunity to see what’s become of the erstwhile star of Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club, as well as the dramatic bona fides of the young co-star of Mozart In The Jungle, on which Dunne plays Lizzie, the adventurous roommate of series star Lola Kirke.
The script, however, is a disaster twice removed from the novel, a tear-jerker redeemed by McMurtry’s subversive humor and impeccable ear and, later, Brooks’ skill at pulling back from the melodrama often enough to make the finale a satisfying sob fest. Terms the play is more of a flash-card deal, a flicker of short scenes dutifully touching all the plot points while draining the story of any compelling POV or emotion. Perfunctorily staged by Michael Parva on a barebones set by David L. Arsenault, the show’s emotional landscape is as flat as east Texas.
That leaves the stars adrift, struggling to make a meal of slim pickings. Ringwald is the stagier of the two, playing Aurora’s priggishness and her sexual awakening for laughs while, essentially, never convincingly unearthing a mother’s near-buried love for her sick daughter. Dunne fares better, unglamorous in an unglamorous role yet still not convincing enough when confronting the ego-mad Aurora or her unfaithful husband Flap (Denver Milord). The show’s sole spark of life comes from the Garret Breedlove of Jeb Brown, who throws caution and decorum to the wind. Audience members will disagree on whether he’s mimicking Nicholson’s boozy cock o’ the walk or just letting loose; either way, it’s a refreshingly ribald intrusion on an otherwise straitlaced and mostly painful two hours.
So now you know everything about the new Terms of Endearment, except, perhaps: Why?