Center Stage

Greeting Hollywood with raised eyebrows: Accomplished playwright, budding screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher
Courtesy of Landmark Theatres

In the history of obsolescence (Betamax, medicinal bleeding, phrenology) few stories can top that of Edward "Ned" Kynaston, an English Restoration-period actor who specialized in female roles when vestigial Puritan regulations prevented women from taking the stage. Kynaston was renowned as a leading lady and was a major celebrity in London until Charles II opened the stage door for women--overnight rendering Kynaston the leading practitioner of a vocation for which there was no longer any use.

Gender-bending, identity confusion, precipitous downfalls--all good stuff that Twin Cities writer Jeffrey Hatcher explored in his 1999 play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which he has adapted for the new film Stage Beauty, starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. Over soft drinks at Dan Kelly's in downtown Minneapolis, Hatcher admits that he's experiencing the same "terror and expectation" over the film's release as he does on opening night of his many plays. Hatcher's original work and adaptations have played in town at the Guthrie, Children's Theatre Company, and Illusion Theater, as well as mid-sized and regional theaters around the country. With August Wilson and Craig Wright no longer in town, he's Minnesota's best-known working playwright.

Middle-aged, bespectacled, wryly relaxed, and open, Hatcher comes across as appealingly down-to-earth and humble about his wide-ranging work (he's even penned a Columbo TV movie). His workmanlike versatility and steady output have earned him a reputation as an artistic chameleon.

"I've heard that," Hatcher says. "I've been known to put on different outfits. But you could have a crime drama, or a romance, or a slapstick comedy, and something the same about the writer bleeds through."

Judging from the taut and bawdy dialogue in Stage Beauty, that something in Hatcher's case is a joker's need for the line that breaks his audience up. "My wife says she can tell when I'm nervous at a party because I joke too much," he says. "I've even thought about, for an exercise, writing a play without any jokes."

Let's hope he doesn't. After an hour of amiable and loose conversation with Hatcher, it's apparent that his sensibility is what makes the movie work. It's foremost a piece of prideful craft, the product of a writer who wants attention focused on the actors rather than himself.

"I have an affinity for actors, probably because acting was what I originally wanted to do," says Hatcher. "Even in the most thankless role I write, I make sure that each actor has a moment that stands out."

Stage Beauty's strengths--crackling dialogue and a pristinely balanced structure--make for a clever and entertaining film. Crudup carries the movie with a nuanced and frequently unsympathetic performance of Kynaston--in his signature role of Desdemona, he bashes through the death scene with such fervor that he thoroughly chafes his fellow actors.

Danes, as Kynaston's servant Maria, fares less well in navigating her character's transformation from dressing-room drudge to overnight starlet after Charles's edict. Her performance is reactive and indistinct, though the character is sufficiently well written that her orbit around Kynaston is crucial to making the movie's pieces fit together. One reason for her unfocused work might be her task of playing one character fused together from two in the original play. "It was a scary thing that ended up taking a day to do," Hatcher says of the splice job he performed for the sake of dramatic economy.

Also failing to match Crudup's standard is Rupert Everett, who as King Charles phones it in during off-peak hours. And Zoe Tapper as Charles's lover and Kynaston's nemesis seems anachronistic and broad. An implausible sequence at the climax leads to Kynaston's semi-redemption with a definite whiff of a Hollywood ending, but Hatcher draws a distinction.

"Kynaston does come through the fire," he says. "But what was important to me was that his redemption come through acting instead of some unbelievable psychological breakthrough." Spoken like a professional storyteller: Show, don't tell, in other words. "The real Kynaston did survive," Hatcher adds. "He never played leading roles again, but he made a living for himself playing secondary roles."

From top banana to bit player--hey, work's work. Stage Beauty spares us Kynaston's mundane years, dishing up the juicy stuff--his arrogant heights, appalling lows, and a made-up evening in which a man trained to play women finally plays a man, and in the end has the honesty to admit he doesn't know who the hell he is or ever was.

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