In recent years the Assembly Rooms, one of the major venues on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, has hit upon the commercial potential of putting much-loved Hollywood movies on the stage. It is here that Christian Slater first starred in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” before transferring to London’s West End. Here also “Twelve Angry Men,” featuring actors best known for standup comedy, made a splash in 2003.
It’s within this tradition that “Midnight Cowboy” falls, a faithful but sadly uninspiring staging of John Schlesinger’s film that won a surprise Oscar in 1969 (so much of a surprise that Schlesinger stayed at home on the night of the ceremony).
In one sense, the reason for doing it is plain to see: the near sell-out audience that turned up on a Monday afternoon without even the lure of a star name in the cast. Whether it’s “The Graduate” or “Footloose,” the public has a tremendous appetite for seeing their bigscreen favorites played out live in front of them. By combining the comforting familiarity of the cinema with the relative novelty of the stage, Assembly Theater has found it can appeal to a broader-than-average market.
But in another sense, the reason for staging this particular movie is harder to fathom. First, it’s foolhardy to expect any two actors to compete against the charisma of pic’s stars, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Second, “Midnight Cowboy,” with its episodic scenes taking us from Texas to Gotham and on to Miami, does not suggest itself for the stage in the way its one-set predecessors did.
On both these challenges, the production gets by but does not excel. So locked into the rhythm of the original is Tim Fountain’s unadventurous version of the script that helmer John Clancy (a founding artistic director of the New York Intl. Fringe Festival), seems content to emulate the movie without trying to translate it into a specifically theatrical language. His approach is reverential, not radical.
This is evident primarily in the performances, which deviate little from the 1969 template. Charles Aitken as Joe Buck, the out-of-town Texan who believes Gotham’s middle-aged women are his for the taking, and Con O’Neill as Ratso, the delusional down-and-out with a bad leg and a fatal fever, give decent perfs, but they are easier to view as homage to Voight and Hoffman than as interpretations in their own right.
In his sky-blue cowboy shirt, Stetson and wavy blond hair, Aitken makes a handsome gum-chewing gigolo. His Southern drawl could be slower, but he has a look of fresh-faced honesty that plays well against the story of constant big-city disappointment.
O’Neill, looking like a down-at-heel bandit with his heavy growth of stubble, greasy hair and ill-fitting suit, has Hoffman’s frenetic arm movements down to a tee. It’s more than an imitation, but less than an independent vision.
They duly act out the well-known scenes from the movie, prompting much wheeling on and off of beds, bus seats and bar tables on a drab set by Richard Foxton that looks as if it has been built for efficiency rather than aesthetics. If the talked-about West End transfer goes ahead, a new design is a must.
Just as disappointing is the failure of Clancy to show the flare he has demonstrated in previous Edinburgh visits with shows such as “Americana Absurdum,” “Horse Country” and “Fatboy.” He gives us the bare bones of the movie, but dreams up nothing theatrical to compensate for the atmosphere and visuals we lose.
What we’re left with is fine but rather pointless, and no match for watching the sublime original on DVD.