In a riotous long-ago episode of “The Honeymooners,” the Kramdens and Nortons mistook a private living room for an off-off-Broadway playhouse, avidly applauding the family’s realistic “acting” in their own home. A similar sense of peeping in on real life pervades Michael Sargent’s “The Projectionist,” a noir-influenced comic melodrama about, and performed within, a seedy movie lobby. Script is thin, but sharp acting and helmer Bart DeLorenzo’s lurid trappings make for a memorably creepy entry in CTG’s “Douglas Plus” series of experimental entertainments.
There’s something hypnotic about occupying folding chairs in the dimly lit Kirk Douglas Theater lobby. Facing Washington Boulevard and surrounded by designer Chris Covics’ giddy array of movie posters, bilious drapes and scrawled candy counter signs, there’s no escaping the illusion of being plopped down in the Art Theater in the heart of Hollywood — your typical 1980s grindhouse, all seats $2, serving up Cronenberg and Charles Bronson double features and some occasional pre-VHS porn.
Emcee for this funky cabaret is the Art’s jack-of-all-trades Randy, Hamish Linklater offering an amusingly greasy variation on the slacker he plays in CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine” sitcom. This dropout from film school and life (check out the Camus he reads slouching in the box office kiosk) suffers from a bad back and worse karma. Halting and unsocialized, he moves in a jerky trance, words bursting out like the creature emerging from John Hurt’s chest in “Alien.”
For a while one suspects menace underlying his uneasy flirtation with Kim (Brittany Slattery), the offhand waif who talks herself into the popcorn girl job and starts poking into his past.
But then in walk Warren Oates and Daryl Hannah — not really, but the casting of Barry Del Sherman and Tara Chocol Joyce instantly evokes iconic Peckinpah and Tarantino bad guys — and we realize Randy is no psycho, just a lost working stiff now confronted with real-life revenge and violence and forced to make a choice.
This is familiar stuff, to those who know Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero” or “Taxi Driver.” The setting’s novelty isn’t duplicated in the dramaturgy. Sargent never quite establishes the relationship between Randy’s actions and his movie mania. If the character is “projecting” himself into violent B-picture mayhem, periodic blasts of squalid music from the screen (and a Red Vine briefly proffered as a weapon) serve that effect more than the often contrived plot turns.
Still, at a running time just over an hour, DeLorenzo’s wizardry maintains enough balls in the air to keep us rapt. Among the coolest devices are the subtle miking of the outdoor action beyond the glass doors and a brief side trip to the pulsating projection booth above. Given the cramped, makeshift quarters, Anne Militello’s lighting effects are nothing short of miraculous.
Linklater and Slattery are a charmingly off-center couple; all of their scenes land. And though Lauren Campedelli’s dyspeptic theater owner veers into caricature, there’s constant verisimilitude from the parade of bleary patrons (many of them vets of DeLorenzo’s Evidence Room company) staggering in to pass the time in air-conditioned dark comfort. The address may be Hollywood and Vine, but a modern GPS system would surely track it to the corner of Flotsam and Jetsam.