Capping a season of unremarkable fare with yet another show that aspires to lofty heights but fails in the attempt, the Mark Taper Forum offers “The First Picture Show,” an overlong, didactic journey through the early history of motion pictures from a distaff participant’s perspective. Described by its creators — Ain and David Gordon (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (tunes) — as a play with music, show mixes the here-and-now with flashbacks to convey the ultimately uninteresting story of Anne First, a pioneer actress and director sidelined from the movies by a growing, male-dominated studio system.
Production will remind auds of “Tintypes” and “An American Clock” (both at the Taper in years past) thanks to its spare design, ensemble cast and use of music for background as well as narrative effect, but a series of digressions undermines this show’s core, leaving protagonists underdeveloped and significant background details a blur.
Essential plot revolves around Anne (played as a younger woman by Ellen Greene and at the age of 99 by Estelle Parsons) and her brother Louis (an ardent Steven Skybell), Ohio dreamers who see Hollywood as the antidote to their dull lives. At 15, Anne makes her way west, first to star in pictures and then to make them. Louis wants to follow; he already owns a chain of cinemas. But his plainspoken wife May (a no-nonsense Norma Fire) prefers the simple life. Ultimately, Louis and May make it to Hollywood, but when Anne spurns Louis’ notion of a joint film venture, and Carl Laemmle (Ken Marks) gives him the brush-off, it’s back to the heartland for the couple. A later encounter, at a congressional censorship hearing, puts an end to Anne and Louis’ once-close relationship.
That family drama, though, often takes a back seat to a more modern, and far less engaging, domestic situation, the attempts of Jane Furstmann (Greene again), Louis’ great-granddaughter, to get the now-aged Anne (Parsons) to discuss her days behind the camera. Under the best of circumstances, this method of exposition is unimaginative, but here it’s insufferable, too. With Anne in a nursing home, the Gordons (father and son, incidentally) seize every opportunity for cheap sitcom laughs. Thanks to their hackneyed lines, even a gifted vet thesp like Parsons comes off mouthing pablum. And Greene is impossibly cloying as a needy director of commercials searching for her big break.
Constant speechifying, in both the old-Hollywood and the nursing-home sequences, sets up yet another roadblock to our enjoyment. No one wants to be lectured to in the theater, yet that’s how the Gordons impart much of this show’s information. Still, David Gordon possesses flair as a director and choreographer. He keeps the players, and often the props, in a state of constant agitation. He should have realized his show is far too long, and poorly organized, to boot, but he sets up some moments worth savoring.
His clever use of title cards (“Time Passes,” one dryly suggests), upright pianos on casters and even videotape demonstrate his virtuosity. At one point, he even manages real magic: As infirm Anne describes a scene she directed, it plays out before our eyes in beautifully lit slow-motion.
It’s a pity, though, that the talented Tesori hasn’t been better used here. Her music for Nicholas Hytner’s Lincoln Center staging of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was one of that production’s highlights. And though she did have a better lyricist in the Bard, the Gordons have given her precious little to work with. Indeed, her most significant contribution to “The First Picture Show” is toe-tapping, ersatz turn-of-the-century background music.
Let us be thankful for small favors, however.
This show’s spare scenic design, courtesy of Robert Brill, is a welcome plus, as are Judith Dolan’s period costumes and Jennifer Tipton’s atmospheric, though sometimes erratic, lighting. The Taper program states that Ain Gordon is set to begin work on another Taper commission this fall. One hopes his next show proves better than his “First.”