Movies Were Movies – and Now Stage Plays: TERMS OF ENDEARMENT


Doesn’t Molly Ringwald in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT at 59E59 Theatre look amazingly like Shirley MacLaine in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT?

Is this why director Michael Parva cast her? And was it a good idea?

It’s certainly a great idea if we simply look at Ringwald’s superb performance. Turns out that all those teenybopper films did her a world of good.

Ringwald gets all of Aurora Greenway, who believes motherhood entitles her to run her daughter’s life till death do they part. Never mind that Emma is now married with children; Aurora is still phoning Emma first thing every morning.

She’s not at all neighborly to her neighbor Garrett Breedlove, the one-time astronaut who’s now gone to seed, cheesecakes and cheese steaks. “I expected a hero,” she says with a suck-a-lemon look on her face while delivering this sucker-punch.

Seeing Ringwald resemble MacLaine reminds us, though, that we’re watching a story we’ve already seen — and have seen win five Oscars, for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (all to James L. Brooks), Actress for MacLaine and Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson’s performance.

And doesn’t Jeb Brown here have the precise circumference and thrust of Nicholson’s pot belly from the 1983 film?

Why remind us that we’ve had the quintessential TERMS OF ENDEARMENT experience long ago, especially if you can’t do it as well on stage? Budgets being what they are, playwright Dan Gordon couldn’t accommodate a pair of performers to portray Emma’s two young children (and, for that matter, a salary for a child wrangler). So the film’s poignant, tear-drenching scene where Emma tells her sons no good news from her hospital bed now becomes a letter that Emma dictates to Aurora. It’s full of “I love yous,” which is far too on-the-nose and pales to the scene where that isn’t quite said but the audience knows that’s what Emma means.

Brown excels as Garrett, the good ol’ boy who’s not so good and no boy – at least at first and, for that matter, at second. Near play’s end, however, the character grows wonderfully and Brown navigates his journey well. He almost makes us forget that the playwright uses clunky exposition all too often, and starts too many scenes with such lines as “It’s been two weeks” and “It’s been five years.”

Emma is deftly played by Hannah Dunne. The show takes place in Texas, but Dunne is the only one of the three who uses a pronounced Southern accent. Come to think of it, Debra Winger in the film was the only one who chose that speech option, too. It’s just another reminder of how much TERMS OF ENDEARMENT relies on the film.

Meanwhile, 46 blocks downtown at Classic Stage Company is DEAD POETS SOCIETY, which may be the closest screenplay-to-play ever with many word-for-word sequences. That’s not particularly surprising, for Tom Schulman, who wrote the screenplay for the 1989 smash hit, is the playwright, too. Guess he felt he hadn’t made enough from his cash cow and had to birth a cash calf.

So we’re still in 1959 at Welton Academy, “the best prep school in the United States,” insists headmaster Paul Nolan (a solid David Garrison). He makes the boys recite the school’s mantra: “Tradition, Honor, Discipline and Excellence.” Of course the moment Nolan leaves the classroom, the five students we meet (as opposed to six in the film) are no better than the kids at GREASE’s Rydell High who parody the official (and officious) school song. The Welton Boys see their lives at the school as “Tragedy, Horror, Decadence and Excrement.”

So they’re ripe for an adventurous teacher, and here comes Mr. Keating who just can’t wait to try out his unorthodox methods. Jason Sudeikis has this “Robin Williams role,” and he’s splendid in creating the teacher you always wanted to have and love but never did. (Or did you have one as good? Sudeikis will make you nostalgic for him or her.)

“Words and ideas can change the world,” Keating states, and soon he has the kids getting excited, noisy and out of their seats. Is it any surprise that at every such outburst, Headmaster Nolan just happens to be strolling by the classroom at that moment and storms in none too pleased? What is unexpected is that director John Doyle has him glare at the audience, too, as if we’re students as well.

Schulman doesn’t settle for making Nolan a one-dimensional  sobersides. We see he’s out for the students’ best welfare when he warns Keating that such methods will keep the kids from making a living. That said, he’s not nearly as ferocious on this point as Mr. Perry (a fine Stephen Barker Turner) who simply will not stand for his son Neil appearing in something so frivolous as the school play.

As Neil, an equally fine Thomas Mann (yes, Thomas Mann!) has Robert Sean Leonard’s breakthrough role. The accomplishments extend to the other Brylcreemed boys who fit the template: the sensitive one, the brave one, the timid one, the horny one and (inevitably) the stutterer. They’re respectively and respectfully portrayed by Bubba Weiler, Cody Kostro, Yaron Lotan, William Hochman and Zane Pais. These kids may not get great marks in school, but these actors hit their marks on stage.

As for Nolan and Keating, will the authority figure or the admitted maverick win? If you can’t fight City Hall, can you possibly fight a mere prep school and prevail?

Still, Schulman has done well himself with the four precepts he’d designed for Welton; he certainly HONORED the TRADITION of his original script and was DISCIPLINED enough to see the project through. And while he succeeded at making the show EXCELLENT (aside from such anachronisms as “Well, duh”), he can’t give us a compelling enough reason why his screenplay should come to the stage.

Amazon Video has both DEAD POETS SOCIETY and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT for $2.99. I hate to tell you what you’d pay for these plays.