Poor Donnie Darko. First, the troubled teen is on meds for psychological problems. Then a 6-foot rabbit tells him the world is going to end. Then a jet engine crashes into his bedroom. Then his movie is adapted to the stage. Sometimes a kid just can’t get a break.
Richard Kelly’s enigmatic 2001 cult film, which combines high school angst with science fiction, teen romance and quirky comedy, would seem a natural for a student-rich market and an adventuresome theater like A.R.T. Indeed, workshops of the show in helmer Marcus Stern’s acting class created enough buzz to get the green light for a full production on the company’s second stage, which is becoming a home for works aimed to attract a younger audience. This year, the terrific “The Onion Cellar” (also helmed by Stern) bowed there as well as a popular hip-vaudeville show.
But not all films can make the transition from screen to stage. That’s the case here in a production best described as an intriguing exercise that doesn’t work.
At worst, it’s a scattershot endeavor with uneven perfs, awkward script choices and cumbersome staging. There are several nice visual elements such as the jet crash, done via a dollhouse with an actor holding a toy airplane. But even the cool musical score (much of it lifted from the movie) fails to energize the story, save for the haunting “Mad World” which ends the film and stage show.
Though the “what does it mean?” factor fueled obsessive talk about the film, it sometimes obscured a work of fine craftsmanship, a script that captured a teen world of a certain time (1988) and a captivating perf by a young Jake Gyllenhaal. Just looking into the actor’s troubled eyes in the film’s close-ups and stillnesses you could almost enter his confused mind (and also find a compatriot in confusion).
While in the stage version the lanky Dan McCabe looks right, the audience is not drawn into the character’s troubled soul. Not that he’s given much time to make that connection because the actor is too busy dashing back and forth on the vast stage and zipping us through the 70-plus scene narrative. (The show is a souped-up 80 minutes.)
Kelly’s mixture of styles, so perfectly balanced on film, is played more as a goof on stage, with the comic-book elements dominating the tone at the expense of the more realistic aspects. The one extended scene with Donnie and girlfriend-to-be (Flora Diaz) at a bus stop is almost startling in its unexpected honesty.
As for the metaphysical elements, they remain as open to interpretation as in the film. But they aren’t the stage work’s challenge. Anyone unfamiliar with the original might find even the basic narrative difficult to follow, especially in terms of the characters’ relationships with one another.
Donnie’s family is sketchily portrayed in deep exaggeration: Donnie’s little sister Samantha is played by a young woman in pigtails (Carolyn McCandlish); mom (Paula Langton) is a wine-loving lush; his classmates are cartoons (he’s minus his best friends); and authority figures are beyond archetypes — though at least Karen MacDonald as righteous Kitty Farmer and Thomas Derrah as the smarmy motivational speaker know how to enliven a scene.
Though the stage is populated with 19 actors (only half of them Equity members, and sadly, that shows with some painfully thin perfs), it’s still not enough to fill the film’s high school and suburban world. It’s a mad, weird place still best viewed — and contemplated — onscreen. Stern doesn’t succeed in creating an equally intriguing parallel universe on the stage.