Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter who struggled writing an adaptation of “The Orchid Thief” and instead produced the wild melange of fiction and reality that became “Adaptation,” puts an old-fashioned radio play through the same ringer in “Hope Leaves the Theater.” It’s assumed Francis Fregoli is a pseudonym for Kaufman — his other twin brother? — who has penned the more straight-forward “Anomalisa.” The two three-handers are wildly different in content and purpose and both are performed deliciously by cast, Carter Burwell’s eight-piece band and foley artist Marko Costanzo.
Music and f/x play a far larger role in the opener “Anomalisa,” a word constructed by conjoining anomaly and Lisa, and collectively they give the piece a more cinematic texture. Close the eyes, however, and it’s not so much listening to the radio as it is a case of eavesdropping. Fregoli, whoever he may be, hits a nerve in this realism.
The actors in both are asked to move between awkward moments and strident confidence, nonchalance and self-consciousness, dark and light. Each actor not only shines in central roles, but they make the periphery exciting, too.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a Brit, married with a kid and living in Los Angeles, has become something of a customer service guru. He has returned to Cincinnati to deliver a speech and, while in town, reconnects with a former femme lover (Tom Noonan) from 10 years back. He has moved on; she hasn’t. And when they meet for a drink, Stone is rejected in his attempt to renew their sex life.
Buzzing from a few rounds of Belvedere martinis, he stumbles on Emily (Tom Noonan) and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), two customer service tyros from Akron in town to hear the words of the sage. A few martinis, “apple mojitos” and an homage to Celine Dion follow, leading Stone to ask Lisa to return to his room.
Physically scarred, though we never found out exactly why or how, she’s bewildered that Stone would chose her over Emily. It has been eight years since she had a relationship or sex even; she stays guarded but gives in. An encounter with the hotel manager ensues in which he’s warned to avoid Lisa. It makes him want her more — he even offers to leave his wife for her and she stays firm, allowing their relationship to remain a one-night stand.
He returns home, presenting his son with something that, unbeknownst to him, is apparently a Japanese sex toy. It does not go over well.
“Anomalisa’s” ambiguous ending, while frustrating, leads the viewer to review the facts and situations as presented. It’s a sexually driven mystery, a whodunit about identity that’s a bit too jumbled to assert any clear conclusions about any of the characters. Its strength is in the execution and the actors’ ability to move from voice to voice and make each distinguishable and fleshed out; closing your eyes and letting the realness of Fregoli’s dialogue sink in allows for an almost disturbing fly-on the-wall perspective.
“Hope Leaves the Theater” provides a comedic balance to the evening. The play-within-a-play, interrupted by a cell phone’s ring and an irked Meryl Streep, is a remarkably clear collection of tangents. Less reliant on music and f/x than “Anomalisa,” “Hope” opens with the house lights on and the aud getting back to their seats.
The inner thoughts of a patron (Hope Davis) rise above the din: She hates her body and her loneliness, she wants to find love and thinks Paul Giamatti – “an angry, homely puppy” – would be right for her. A pair of Brits (Peter Dinklage and Meryl Streep) sit next to her.
The play begins and it immediately goes into existential orbit as two characters (Dinklage and Streep) are riding an elevator through thousands of floors with hundreds of stops that force them to evaluate the human condition. Then the cell phone goes off.
The call Davis gets from her mother sets off Streep, who berates the audience and eventually her fellow actors, before settling down and getting on with the play. By the way — this is Kaufman’s final play (wink wink). After he finished it, he committed suicide.
Ashamed to stay much longer, the theater patron leaves and heads into Westwood, where she takes a bus(!) and before long is having Instant Messenger foreplay, talking to her mother on the phone and rebuffing the advances of the man who was seated next to her at the play.
Eventually a critic enters and as he dissects the play that took place in the elevator he connects dots concerning reality and fiction; it’s not unlike “Adaptation” and the wide open sprawl at its conclusion. Satisfying to some (count me in) and mystifying and even frustrating to others.
Davis’ theatergoer is terrif and Streep’s command of voices is unparalleled. Dinklage dons accents well in a collection of rich perfs. Burwell’s score is a bouncy blend of pop and jazz, a Steely Dan-ish throwback that assists in keeping the piece light and airy.