Sometimes, through shrewd planning or sheer coincidence, an original play and its subsequent movie adaptation will open in South Florida within weeks of each other, and despite the extra attention both the play and film will garner because of it, for spectators who take in both, one of them usually seems a little off-key. I believe the last time this overlap occurred was in early 2009, when the Caldwell mounted “Frost/Nixon” a few weeks after the Oscar-nominated film opened; the Boca production was not loved by the press.
The latest example is “Jack Goes Boating,” Bob Glaudini’s 2007 off-Broadway hit about the title character, a socially awkward, pot-smoking limousine driver; his unhappily married best friends; and his potential paramour, the sexually traumatized embalmer’s assistant with whom his friends try to set up him up. The film version, directed by and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jack, opened on a few South Florida screens last week, and New Theatre’s theatrical production opened its three-week run last night in Coral Gables.
The movie “Jack Goes Boating” is a sterling little dramedy full of quiet revelations about friendship, trust and the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. Given Hoffman’s track record, it’s no surprise he’s brilliant in the film, especially knowing that he played the same part in the off-Broadway premiere. But the rest of the cast, and Hoffman’s direction, are equally peerless. It will likely be remembered, at least by me, as one of the most underrated films of 2010.
So I was expecting a lot going into New Theatre’s production, and for those of you who see the film ahead of time, as I did, prepare to be disappointed. While I would never criticize a local production for its inability to capture those elements unique to cinema-artsy camera techniques, location changes, a bigger budget, star power-it is perfectly fair to go after the play’s misguided direction, casting and acting, starting with the central performance by Clint Hooper as Jack. I’ve been a fan of Hooper’s from previous productions, like New Theatre’s own “Raised in Captivity,” but this time he’s all wrong. His tall, gangly form, a stark contrast from Hoffman’s imposing girth, should have nonetheless channeled the same nervous anxiety, but Hooper plays the part fairly well-adjusted. His exaggerated attempts to clear his throat- his character’s subtle, nervous tell – come across strained and overly comic, a tendency that bleeds through this entire production.
As Connie, Jack-s angsty love interest, Aubrey Shavonn is thoroughly unconvincing, flubbing some lines and failing to convey her character-s hang-ups. Beatriz Montanez, who plays Lucy-Connie’s supervisor and Jack’s friend-doesn’t fare much better, blowing some lines of her own while occasionally sinking into annoying ethnic stereotypes that are completely absent from her character in the film. Chris Vicchiollo, as Lucy’s husband Clyde, is the only actor who comes out of this mess unscathed.
The set design, too, is merely functional, and New Theatre can’t seem to manage the seemingly simple task of decent blood makeup after Connie is assaulted on a subway. Overall, it seems that director Steven A. Chambers simply had not seen, or didn’t understand, the playwright’s intent, aiming for insulting slapstick comedy even when the material called for dramatic potency.
Seeing the film in advance isn’t necessary to understand most of this production’s flaws, but it certainly acts a Rosetta Stone for fully comprehending its weaknesses.
“Jack Goes Boating” is at New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables, through Oct. 24. Tickets are $35 to $40. Call 305/443-5909.