Thursday, May 19

Radio Days: Heavy Meta

"You're watching a movie, in a theatre at home, and starting to doze. You can't keep your eyes open, but the sound of the film still seeps through your ears, which sadly are never closed. Your mind paints the picture itself in that meaningful but not quite visual way that dreams play out. This is the experience I'd like you to have now."

The Coen Brothers. They don't suck.

Charlie Kaufman. Just a little bit clever

Put them together with a few obscure actors like Steve Buscemi, John Goodmam and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Oh yeah, and Meryl Streep. Place on the burner and bring to a boil, for two live radio plays so post-modern they make Thomas Pynchon look like "Sweet Valley High."

The Coens, as much as I love them, turned in a so-so effort called "Sawbones," a story (a TV western about a frontier veterinarian) within a story (a love triangle between a vaccuum cleaner salesman, bored housewife and firespotter). Clever, but short, and almost too dense with overlapping conversations to even comprehend.

The Times called it "a middling amuse-bouche." But what a main course!

Kaufman -- this man has serious problems, and I mean that in a good way.

His "Hope Leaves the Theater" was mind-twistingly complex enough that it defies simple summary, but everyone in the audience had their jaws on the floor and was laughing with delight at every self-referential wrinkle.

The play is set in several interlocking levels of reality and fiction, with actors who are in fact "playing" themselves.

Hope Davis, Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage (the midget from "The Station Agent") are each sitting on a stool, already talking as the audience files in. We realise that they are playing audience members who are watching Hope, Meryl and Peter, waiting for the play to begin.

With me so far?

Once the lights dim, Meryl and Peter launch into a play about two strangers in an hospital elevator. I was already laughing out loud at this point, as was everyone around me, listening to Meryl Streep voice a monotone, nonsensical elevator announcement: "33rd floor, urinalysis, blood disorders, my baby, oh my god, why, my baby, my baby."

Hope continues to play an audience member who is obsessively monologuing internally, but when her mobile phone begins to ring, Meryl breaks character and begins to berate her in full "I am an Academy Award winner!" mode. Remember, this is meant to be heard and not seen.

As we follow Hope out of the theater, the play gets more and more complex, finally ending with a critic writing a cutting review of the play itself, concluding that Kaufman's self-referential tricks are essentially shite, leading Kaufman to kill himself -- a suicide that we've heard referenced throughout the entire performance.

With some of my favorite actors on stage, it was impossible not to watch them. But there wasn't much to see. They were dressed in casual clothes, barely gesticulating, with a full orchestra and foley sound effects man behind them. As I got pulled into Kaufman's head, Malkovich style, I tore my gaze away, leaned back, and closed my eyes.

When it was all over, the crowd fucking HOWLED with approval.

"Theater of the Air" is scheduled to be broadcast on Sirius satellite radio later this summer. Hopefully it will leak out -- everyone should hear this.

A review from Ain't It Cool News says: "If Kaufman ever writes a full play, it could take over the world. Not that he will, of course. Because he's dead."

A blog reviewer says "it gets very hard to describe the play without it sounding like a great big pile of wank."

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