The ambiguous line between play-acted and actual sexual abuse is explored in "The Limbo Room." Curiously, pic is open-ended enough to generate post-screening chatter, but, at the same time, doesn't plumb the depths of its fascinating subject. Film will likely be limited to mid-level fests, though airdates on art cable outlets might be in the wings.

The ambiguous line between play-acted and actual sexual abuse is explored in Debra Eisenstadt’s sophomore film, “The Limbo Room.” Curiously, pic is open-ended enough to generate post-screening chatter, but, at the same time, doesn’t plumb the depths of its fascinating subject. Film looks at the world of Off Broadway understudies through the eyes of an actress who’s been stuck in the neither-on-nor-offstage life for much too long. The unrealized promise of a powerful third act will limit the film’s reach beyond mid-level fests, though airdates on art cable outlets might be in the wings.

Judging by this and Eisenstadt’s 2000 debut, “Daydream Believer,” any would-be thesp’s hopes of a good life in the New York theater may as well be tossed out with the trash. Unlike the wet-behind-the-ears newcomer in “Daydream,” Ann (Andrea Powell) is a 39-year-old Off Broadway vet, apparently not quite good enough to land a lead role but reliable enough to hold onto understudy assignments.

Title specifically refers to the green room where Ann and fellow understudies like Russell (Zack Griffiths) and pal Shelly (Richard Vetere) stay prepped and listen to the audio of the onstage perf.

Title, though, also pegs Ann’s life in general, from her indeterminate professional existence to an engagement to fellow actor Guy (Jonathan Marc Sherman) that looks sure to be a future marriage on the rocks.

Both of these details precisely repeat situations in “Daydream,” suggesting that Eisenstadt — a former thesp whose time working as an understudy in David Mamet’s “Oleanna” partly inspired her script — is a writer-director who knows what she wants to write about.

What at first appears to be a story of an overlooked artist in the shadow of would-be diva star KC (Melissa Leo) takes an interesting turn when KC falls in love with Russell. His role calls for raping KC’s character, but performance and reality blur when she feels that he’s sexually abusing her during the scene.

With KC emotionally coming apart, Ann may be called on to step into the role.

While “The Limbo Room” often positions a volatile group of characters in a compressed and pressurized space, it never feels like a filmed play about actors doing a play thanks to Eisenstadt’s loose camerawork and punchy scenes that seldom overstay their welcome.

The scenes flirt with considerable emotional danger but never press to the extremes. Only Leo, in yet another fascinating performance that combines steely will and desperate loneliness, takes KC all the way to edge and hints at where the whole film may have gone.

After KC is out of the picture and Ann’s inadequately developed involvement with Russell assumes center screen, pic becomes increasingly shaky, with an ending that can be read as the whole point of the project or as a last-minute shocker inserted to stir the pot. Powell’s neutral performance seems intended to keep viewers at a distance.

Overshadowing the rest of the ensemble’s fair but unremarkable turns is a brief, brilliantly funny cameo by Peter Dinklage as a sharpie agent.

Lenser Jay Silver’s mobile camera aids Eisenstadt’s taste for group exchanges that sound semi-improvised yet invariably lead to a punch line. Editing, by Eisenstadt and Jennifer Lilly, is crisp if a touch close to a television approach.

The Limbo Room

Production

A Light Pony Films presentation of a Public Road production. Produced by Debra Eisenstadt, Alessandra Gatien. Executive producer, Brett Morgan. Co-producer, Jill Eisenstadt. Directed by Debra Eisenstadt. Screenplay, Debra Eisenstadt, Jill Eisenstadt.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Jay Silver; editors, Debra Eisenstadt, Jennifer Lilly; production designers, Leonardo Lubrano, Barbara Eisenstadt; sound, Laura Hanna; supervising sound editor, Rick Chefalas; associate producer, Barbara Eisenstadt. Reviewed at American Cinematheque (Alternative Screen series), Los Angeles, July 20, 2006. (Also in Slamdance Film Festival.) Running time: 78 MIN.

With

KC Collins - Melissa Leo Ann Joseph - Andrea Powell Guy Greenbaum - Jonathan Marc Sherman Russell Zimmerman - Zack Griffiths Flip - Roger Raines Shelly - Richard Vetere Dusty Spitz - Peter Dinklage
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