nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 10, 2008
The Conversation, now playing at 29th Street Rep, is a terrific thriller, and that's something you rarely see on stage nowadays. Kate Harris has adapted Francis Ford Coppola's screenplay and director Leo Farley has brought this story to life in all its paranoid, claustrophobic, riveting glory.
It's about Harry Caul, a middle-aged man who makes his living in surveillance. He is, we come to find out, an expert, one of the very best in the field, capable of accomplishing things that seem impossible and that his competitors can't figure out. We also discover early on in the play that his personal life is shadowy, cipher-like. His girlfriend doesn't know where he lives or what his job is (she lives in a hotel room and literally stays there all the time, waiting for him to call or visit). His own apartment is spartan. His only relaxation comes from playing a saxophone that hangs on the wall near his phonograph. Nothing from outside—nothing from his work life—is supposed to invade this haven.
So when the phone rings one day, the first question is: how did someone get Harry's number? A string of coincidences start to feel un-coincidental. Why is Harry's longtime associate Stanley suddenly working for another surveillance guy, William P. Moran? Why is the "Director" who employed Harry to do his latest job suddenly unavailable, with some other guy named Matthew Harrison running interference?
Most disturbingly, what's the story behind the man and woman he's bugging and photographing for the Director? Are their lives in danger? Is, suddenly, Harry's?
Like all great suspense yarns, The Conversation twists and turns continuously and compellingly, and to give anything more away would be a crime almost as rotten as the one at the story's center. Like the best Hitchcock tales, The Conversation puts a more-or-less innocent bystander in the midst of events and encounters he does not entirely understand. But unlike most Hitchcock heroes, Harry Caul is not innocent, and despite his constant protestations that he's a good man, he suspects on some level that he is not. Coppola and Harris skirt the morality question at the end, opting for a gasp-inducing finish instead. But Harry is more anti-hero than hero, if even that: his essential weakness, and the torment caused by his self-knowledge, really propel the story into psychological-thriller territory.
Farley's realization of the piece is terrific. Mark Symczak's set consists of some detailed furniture and props along the two side walls; a big unit piece center stage that serves as bed, couch, park bench, or whatever else is required; an enclosed section behind it that houses whomever is eavesdropping at the moment; and several doors, each of which indicates the current location with deft economy. Stewart Wagner's evocative lighting works in tandem with Symczak's design to define the space and create the mood, beautifully. Joseph Fosco's sound and Rebecca Ming's costumes complete the production design, invaluably.
The pacing is tight and focused and sharp, and so are the performances. 29th Street Rep favorites Tim Corcoran and Thomas Wehrle are on hand, and terrific as always, as (respectively) Moran and Paul Meyers, a cop who moonlights as one of Harry's operatives. Leigh Feldpausch, Craig Butta, James E. Smith, Amber Gallery, and Julianne Carpenter each play more than one character, and they're so distinctive that often I didn't realize we were seeing the same actors used over again. Jack Dillon is splendidly grating as Harrison, the assistant who keeps putting Harry off. And in the central role, David Mogentale is outstanding, laying the character bare even as his paranoid, hyper-protective coating suggests that's impossible. His primary movement pattern is circular, which tells us a great deal about who Harry is; his lack of comfort inside his own skin is palpable.
I have never seen the film The Conversation, so the play's surprises were particularly exciting to me; but I suspect that even if you know the story, you will find much to relish in this exceedingly well-executed production. How great is it to want to hurry back after intermission to find out what's going to happen next?