Like a couple of 1950’s Cahiers du Cinéma cineastes, Mr. Mercer and playwright Gianfranco Settecasi attach much profundity to a relatively obscure movie believing it has contemporary relevance. Those who haven’t seen it could be bewildered by the point of this artificial incarnation which has been gestating for three years. It’s in the mode of some of Ivo van Hove’s self-conscious cinematic transcriptions. Yes, it’s possible to do this but a likely reaction is a shrug of “so what?”
Much effort has been expended to offer an overly stylized stage treatment of the minor 1954 black and white film that was efficiently directed by Lewis Allen. Suddenly was a hostage drama starring Frank Sinatra as an unhinged would-be presidential assassin terrorizing a family with his gang.
With shades of The Petrified Forest, Key Largo and The Desperate Hours Richard Sale’s well-constructed screenplay sets up a familiar scenario of underworld types invading a commonplace domain. There’s patriotic, philosophical and sociological musings by the characters with the villains’ motives being strictly mercenary rather than political. This added a stark nihilist dimension in contrast to the Red Scare era’s fear from Communist Russian insurrection. The plot twists are from the hallowed genre of a fantastic caper where everything goes wrong.
In the suburban California town of Suddenly, in 1954 we meet the Benson family. Ellen is a widow whose husband was killed three years earlier in battle during the Korean War and she lives with her eight-year-old son “Pidge” at her father-in-law’s house. Pops retired very early in his career from the U.S. Secret Service after taking a bullet for President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 in the course of a hunting accident. The stalwart Sheriff Tod Shaw is a frequent visitor as he has taken a romantic interest in Ellen and a protective one in Pidge.
Psychotic John Baron along with his two henchmen barge in posing as FBI agents and take control. They’re being paid $500,000 to assassinate The President by an unknown entity and the Benson house overlooks the train station where the President is scheduled to depart on his way to Los Angeles. A rifle on a stand is set up pointing out of a window to accomplish the deed. Mr. Settecasi’s faithful adaptation replicates much of the film’s dialogue and quite skillfully excises and condenses everything that takes place outside of the Benson house.
Mercer’s direction coordinates the outstanding design components into an aesthetically successful presentation with some neat stage pictures and tableaus. However, the deliberate quest for stylization leads to an exaggerated tone in the performances as opposed to the movie’s straightforward naturalism resulting in an overall distancing effect. There’s the sense of experiencing a stilted art project rather than being engrossed by a play.
Phoebe Dunn as Ellen, a quintessential 1950’s mom, manages to create an appealing characterization with her measured emotional expressiveness. New York City stage veteran Joseph J. Menino is delightfully folksy as Pops. Instead of Sterling Hayden’s luminous charisma from the film, Brendan Walsh is affably wired up as the sheriff. As Pidge, child actor Henry Fin Berry gives an engaging portrayal of bygone American boyhood.
As opposed to the smooth intensity of the skinny Sinatra’s coiled malevolence, Drew Allen’s Baron has more of a James Cagney brusqueness which works to a lesser degree. Ariel Estrada and Chris Dieman have their moments of histrionic glory as Baron’s accomplices. Doing double duty as a garrulous Secret Service official and as a Don Knotts-style television repairman is the animated Sean A. Kaufman.
Bryce Cutler’s scenic and video design, Mary Ellen Stebbins lighting design and Adam Smith’s sound design are all of superior quality. Fight director Mitch McCoy injects a great deal of energy. The 1950’s fashions of gray suits and period everyday wear are all finely executed by costume designer Angela Harner.
In its favor, Suddenly lasts 65 tight minutes and is preceded by a pleasant 10-minute pre-show consisting of movie trailers of Brigadoon and Rear Window as well as newsreel footage of the time and nostalgic drive-in movie announcements. Ultimately, it’s all a mildly entertaining, inconsequential exercise.
Suddenly (through October 20th, 2018)
Live Source Theatre Group
HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.live-source.org
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission