Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.



It’s holy writ among playwrights that a bad production can screw up even a masterpiece. (Don’t believe it? Imagine William Shatner doing Shakespeare — or just singing “Rocket Man.”) But some plays hold up better than others under all circumstances, and after seeing a production of it this past Friday in a tenement theatre in San Francisco I’m thinking that Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” is one of them.

The basic premise is just so much fun:  An average college nerd given a chance with an unconventional and attractive young artiste is remade in the process and left wondering, in the end, who he is and what just happened. This particular production was the directing debut of a recent college grad, and the casting reminded me of many a production I have myself featured in somehow as director or producer or (worst) playwright:  This actor’s great, this one’s good, this one’ll do, and this one… we’ll make work somehow. One actor telegraphed the play’s finale — if you didn’t know the final twist, you could certainly guess it from every actorly indication starting with Moment One. (Note to young actors (or bad actors, or all actors):  Please don’t play the end, and please don’t play the intention; and please don’t play subtext; just be. Please.) Another was physically wrong in almost every way but brought such bonhommie to the role that I grew to appreciate him and his oddly accidental comic moments. The lead was a sensation. And despite whatever faults — including the introduction of an intermission that the playwright expressly doesn’t want — the production worked well, got laughs, and held the attention of the audience. LaBute’s play asks smart questions about the essence of identity and the nature of art and the authenticity of sexual attraction; its success stems from its ability to entertain while being provocative.

What undoubtedly added to the enjoyment for me was that my son was seeing it with me. We went to San Francisco very last minute for three days on some personal business and decided to see a play on Friday night. My heart is usually found in a smaller theatre, so that’s where we went. Thirty years in, it’s hard for me to look at these things without a critical eye (but boy, when I love it, it is a joy to behold); but for Lex, this sort of thing is still new and young. His enjoyment of the play, which he’d already read, rubbed off on me. Whatever relatively minor faults of the production, I left feeling that I wanted to see another play in another small theatre right away.

The next night, after a day full of errands and obligations all over San Francisco, we went to the movies. We both wanted to see “Taken,” but it wasn’t playing near our hotel, so we wound up seeing “Fast & Furious.” Throwing us, in one night, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Let me just say that if ever in my life I’m having the stuffing beaten out of me, if someone is to grab me, throw me against a hard wood table so hard that it breaks in half, pick me up and hit me eight times hard to the craniofacial area, I hope it’s Vin Diesel, because judging from the recovery of Paul Walker it must be like getting pummeled with soft pillows. Walker sits up, wipes an invisible dripping from his nose, and talks down Vin Diesel with soothing words:  It’s the classic misunderstanding, but it’s all for the good, and no hard feelings. You or I would be on life support, but Walker is made of movie stuff. Earlier in the picture, Diesel’s posse of roadway hoodlums south of the border power their muscle cars down twisting mountaintop expanses of secluded roadway at top speeds in reverse, dropping trailer hitches onto gasoline tankers so they can haul off the precious fuel. (I’m assuming this was conceived when oil was at $150 a barrel, not the $50 it’s hovering at now. In 2009 if you want to make off with that much money, you just get a federal bailout.) The fuel swipe goes awry and Vin Diesel and his car find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place:  hurtling toward one truck on a dead-end mountain pass while another tractor trailer endlessly flipping and bouncing from midair to hard ground is tumbling precisely their way. His solution:  Expertly timing when the tractor trailer is in midair and driving beneath it, getting out from under by the skin of his paint job. This trick is so neat that, of course, the movie repeats it again later. In big-budget action-adventure movies, if once is good, twice (or more) must be better.

For me, the movie dies 10 minutes in with Michelle Rodriguez’s character. No, I don’t know why I care about Michelle Rodriguez. I just know I can’t take my eyes off her. It isn’t purely heat; she’s got that indecipherable screen charisma that some people have and some people don’t. In a season of “Lost” that I don’t remember much about and didn’t care much about at the time, she was magnetic. (As was Michael Emerson.) Even surrounded by nitro-fueled steroid cars and whatever has been injected into Vin Diesel’s muscles and head, she stands out. But then she dies. In retrospect. We don’t even get to see it (except later). My son, who knew of my interest in seeing this movie because of Michelle Rodriguez, whispered “Uh oh” when we learned she wasn’t going to be reappearing in this movie. Not that her disappearance was a surprise, either:  Once your action-adventure hero somewhat unwillingly parts with his leading lady but leaves her a note (or, in this case, a big whopping bundle of cash; nothing says farewell my lovely so well as stacks of dead presidents), you know she’s doomed. But then, nothing, absolutely nothing, is a surprise in this movie, up to and including the identity of the mysterious drug lord everyone is hunting, and who turns out to be precisely who everyone (except our hero) thinks it is in the first place.

Finally — and I really can’t leave this subject without a word about this — let’s discuss Vin Diesel. I know that we shouldn’t discuss anyone with the name Vin Diesel, and I realize that each of us has only a limited time on Earth and I’m now spending some of mine on Vin Diesel,  and you’re spending some of  yours reading about Vin Diesel, but I can’t resist. Somehow I didn’t mind him in “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Maybe that’s because Judi Dench was in it. Maybe it’s because it was a science fiction movie with enough distractions, including Thandie Newton. (No Michelle Rodriguez, but she’ll do.) But “Fast & Furious” had me asking myself if Vin Diesel isn’t the flattest “actor” since Charles Bronson. An actor who was in a couple of my plays in the 1990’s did a movie with Charles Bronson in that period. I asked him what Charles Bronson was like. His reply:  “Like cement.” Just an inert slab that happened to be there for you to bounce lines off. I recently watched “Death Wish” again — and no, I don’t know why — and it’s true:  the “distraught” Charles Bronson upset over his wife’s murder and daughter’s rape is indistinguishable from the “workaday” Charles Bronson doing business out in the desert is indistinguishable from the vigilante Charles Bronson shooting would-be muggers in the park is indistinguishable from the murderous Charles Bronson evading police pursuing him from the subway station. Each has the emotional consistency of drywall. I couldn’t think when I’d seen that since in a major name film actor — but then seeing Vin Diesel in his latest solved that riddle for me. Say what you will about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who can’t deliver a comic line to save his schwarzenegger, but at least he can crack his face into a smile.

Oddly, though, for all its obvious problems, “Fast & Furious” is every bit as unwreckable as “The Shape of Things” — probably moreso. The latter is clever enough to withstand the uneven application of artistic ability. The former is so witless, so amped up on steroids and meth, that no amount of artistic ability is needed, or even germane. “What I learned from you is to have a code,” Paul Walker’s character tells Vin Diesel; from all evidence, that character’s code is to do whatever he wants whenever he wants wherever he wants, no matter the impact on anyone else. (We call that hedonism. No, Virginia, it is not a basis for heroism.) The movie’s code is similarly easy to grasp:  maximum impact, but no repercussions. Repeat. Faster. Repeat.

One Response to “Unwreckable”

  1. D'Fence Says:

    I could not agree more about Michelle Rodriguez. She’s such a star man she’s got that old school “thing” where a star is a star and you can’t take your eyes off of them, whether you like them or not or whether they’re giving an Oscar-worthy performance or just phoning it in on a bad day. She’s a force. She deserves more than being Vin Diesel’s girlfriend. Maybe Hollywood will wake up soon.

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