Venue: The Drama Barn
I have to admit that the motivations behind adapting My Dinner with Andre for the stage allude me somewhat, particularly considering that the original film has been available in its entirety on YouTube for at least two years. Given that watching the film is in fact easier and cheaper than attending this Drama Barn production it strikes me that, in order to justify the production’s existence, choices in direction and performance would have to bear significantly on the effects of the play. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.
Both lead performances, Matthew Ingram as Wallace Shawn and Sam Zak as the titular Andre Gregory, were well carried out. Zak’s Andre was energetic, but not to the point of feeling unnatural. Beside him, Ingram’s Wallace bore a surprising similarity to the actual Wallace Shawn in his mannerisms and comparatively lethargic nature. The stage was well conceived of, before Andre arrives at the restaurant other dinners sit at tables around the Drama Barn and music is played from a piano in the corner. Once the conversation was underway, a curtain was pulled to obscure the rest of the restaurant from the audience, closing us in a corner of the Barn with just Andre and Wallace. This serves the obvious logistical purpose of avoiding forcing the extras sat at the other tables to do so for two and a half hours without intermission. The lack of an intermission, incidentally, makes sense, but only from the perspective of preserving the feel of the film, rather than a desire to fully adapt it to a new medium.
The need to imitate the film, rather than create something new, is one which underlines the whole production. Barring minor logistical changes that are necessitated by a move to the theatre (it isn’t feasible, for instance, to have Wallace narrating once the conversation has begun) the directional focus appears to have been entirely on recreating the conditions of the film. This goes as deep, even, as costume choices. Matthew Ingram wears the same beige suit as the film Wallace Shawn, and Sam Zak wears a strikingly similar cardigan to the film Andre. Additionally, while I have praised the quality of the two performances, it is hard to overlook their similarity to those of the film, which it is of course impossible for them to exactly match.
Both the play and the film place a major focus on the improvisational and the performative; Andre describes his sincere belief that most people simply act their way through life, and even remembers a friend who has quit acting, believing it grotesque since people have become so good at it in their real lives. There is added significance then, that in the film Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are playing semi-fictionalised versions of themselves, and that their performance appears to be at least partly improvisational. There can be no question, regardless of the quality of his Wallace Shawn impression, that Matthew Ingram might be playing himself, because we know for a fact that he isn’t actually Wallace Shawn. Similarly, the performance cannot possibly be improvisational, as there exists actual video footage of an almost identically worded performance, in the from of the film.
Many elements of this production of My Dinner with Andre are well carried out. My concern is, however, that the premise of its creation is one which undermines the efforts that have gone into its direction, set design and performances, because it will never quite be the film and doesn’t seem to want to be anything else.