Can good acting rescue bad writing? The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center addressed that question this December 16th. The company performed a virtual reading of the script from the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” Tommy P. Wiseau’s legendary effort The Room.
Using words such as legendary or even effort in describing Mr. Wiseau’s iconoclastic piece may seem odd. Perhaps. To capture The Room’s true essence, one must experience the original screenplay as crafted by the author. It also requires distinguished actors with a passion for drama to present it.
Mr. Wiseau’s The Room should not be confused with Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace with the same title. Interestingly, it did share similarities with Pinter’s work Betrayal. A love triangle threatened to destroy a strong friendship between two men. As in Wiseau’s piece, Betrayal’s dialog contained repetitious lines. The similarities ended there.
For his contributions to the arts, Harold Pinter received the Companion of Honour, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Légion d’honneur among others. It is doubtful that Mr. Wiseau will receive similar distinctions for The Room. His work still provides audiences with an unforgettable evening of entertainment.
The Room told the story of Johnny (played by Jim Catapano) and his “future wife” Lisa (Laura Paone). After informing her mother Claudette (Catherine LaMoreaux) that she “doesn’t love Johnny anymore,” Lisa seduced Johnny’s best friend Mark (Nathaniel Tomb). Johnny felt alienated and unappreciated. As he so eloquently reflected: “Lisa’s been unfaithful. And her mother cares more about her life-threatening cancer than me.”
It is not Chekhov, but, somehow, it works.
For those unfamiliar with Mr. Wiseau’s dialog, James Brown’s lyrics would serve as a good comparison. The Godfather of Soul’s skills as a wordsmith may raise questions. Modify his lyrics, however, and the song just is not a James Brown tune. The same premise applies to Mr. Wiseau’s dialog. Some of the most memorable passages from The Room included:
Lisa: “It’s women’s talk. Only women can talk about it.”
A few lines later Lisa said: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Like the great playwrights, Mr. Wiseau used his work to explore the tragedy of the human condition. Peter (Noah Stanzione) and Johnny shared the following exchange on Jimmy’s (Thom Boyer) passing.
Peter: “Funerals are so depressing.”
Johnny: “That’s life.”
As she contemplated her own mortality, Claudette shared a deep conversation with her daughter.
Claudette: “Nobody wants to help me and I’m dying.”
Lisa: “…Johnny says everything will be fine.”
Claudette: “I’m sure he’s right.”
These quotes provide a good sampling of the screenplay’s content. Michelle (Shauni Ramai) observed, “This is getting worse and worse.” It’s unclear whether she referred to the story or the dialog itself.
One could open to any page in the script and find some unusual phrasing. The following exchange between Billy (Nick Endo) and Lisa would rank among the most befuddling.
Billy: “I owe him money.”
Lisa: “What kind of money?”
Lisa also receives the award for the show’s most nonsensical line: “Before I met Mark, I didn’t think he would blow my mind.”
Claudette advised Lisa to remain with Johnny. She expressed her motherly advice as only a Tommy Wiseau character could.
“I haven’t been happy since I got married for the first time. I didn’t want to marry your dad, either. I’ve been miserable since then.”
Bartlett’s Quotations could devote an entire volume to Claudette’s ruminations. She expressed her disdain for her son.
“Billy’s been nothing but trouble. First the caesarian and now this.”
Each performer played their characters as the script warranted. They made the performance as amusing as the dialog.
The Holiday Season can be a challenging time for performers. Many theatre companies present shows such as A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol and Scrooge. Each feature roles made iconic by other actors.
But can anyone imagine anybody except Tommy Wiseau playing Johnny?
Performer Jim Catapano tested his skills by taking on the most unique character in the history of cinema. Mr. Catapano made Johnny…well, Johnny. The repeated “you are my future wife” reminders to Lisa sounded fresh. His multiple descriptions of Mark as his “best friend” came out as original each of myriad times he said it. He delivered the sine qua non of The Room: “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Even the late James Dean would have smiled at Mr. Catapano’s delivery of the line he inspired.
Mr. Catapano performed a scene not shown in the movie. He confronted drug-dealing Jimmy (Thom Boyer) and challenged him to a fight. While gunslingers in Western films used weapons to settle disputes, Johnny combined his previously unmentioned vampire powers and some interesting trash talk.
I have nine black belts, 15 master’s degrees and a PhD in Agricultural Economics…Have you seen my power level? it’s over 9,000. That means I have over 9,000 units of power…Anger is my middle name.
While not specified in the text, it is unlikely Johnny received any of those master’s degrees in English.
It may seem paradoxical to note that The Room inspired some outstanding performances. Mr. Catapano was not the only actor who impressed.
Laura Paone portrayed The Room’s other infamous character. Somehow Ms. Paone delivered all of Lisa’s lines without laughing. None of the script’s characters were well-developed; Lisa’s vacillating made her a top contender for the least thought through. Ms. Paone still managed to animate Lisa as written in the text. Her best moment came during the fight between Johnny and Mark. In a voice that sounded bored, Ms. Paone drew out the line, “Stop. You’re ruining the party.”
Nathaniel Tomb delivered another superb performance. A remarkable achievement with the character of Mark. By his own admission, Mr. Tomb didn’t understand who Mark was. He still portrayed the character with feeling. His mannerisms and vocal inflections almost allowed the audience to overlook the sloppy dialog.
When discussing the story’s inconsistencies, performer Thom Boyer said, “It’s not a lack of interlocking; it’s a higher interlocking.”
Shauni Ramai brought a lot of energy to her performances as Michelle/the Barista. Nick Endo applied the same enthusiasm to his portrayal of the show’s most controversial character, Billy. Noah Stanzione portrayed Peter as the voice of reason; not easy with this story. Thom Boyer delivered a wonderful rendition of the “me underwears” speech as Bran. Catherine LaMoreaux portrayed Claudette and Anna Paone read the stage directions. Both deserve credit for their professional manner of saying the lines as though serious.
So, can strong acting save poor writing? With respect to The Room, the cast of Dragonfly’s rendition showed why Mr. Wiseau’s work earned the distinction of “cult classic.”
Mark instructed Peter to, “Leave your stupid comments in your pocket.” If Mr. Wiseau had taken his own character’s advice, audiences would not have experienced the The Room.