In the end is a beginning, as the saying goes. And so it is with Apartment 3A, a romantic comedy with a Hollywood ending that marks a Hollywood beginning: the Acting Studio Stage Company's new space on Hollywood Boulevard. While there are certain drawbacks to this production, plenty of encouraging signs emanate from the company that presents it.
Under the leadership of wife-and-husband team Kim St. Leon and Stephen G. Anthony, the new troupe has two clear objectives: to bring affordable, exciting theater to a younger generation of new theatergoers and to give talented new actors the chance to work with and learn from experienced pros. The concept is not only a good one; it's absolutely essential in this theater community, which faces problems with aging audiences and the lack of opportunities for newcomers. The company is also making a statement about high standards with its heavyweight lineup of Anthony and fellow award-winner Wayne LeGette in principal roles and direction by St. Leon. The Acting Studio clearly plans to focus on performance rather than production values.
Apartment 3A is a dandy actor showcase. The story centers on thirtysomething Annie Wilson (Jennifer Safina), a brainy media professional who is the overworked fundraiser for the local PBS affiliate in an unnamed American city. Like many of her yuppie sisters, Annie's professional éclat hasn't translated into romantic success: She just moved out on her live-in lover after catching him in flagrante delicto on the dining-room table with a gymnastic new lady friend. Devastated, Annie arrives at a rundown apartment seeking to start a new life. She takes the empty flat and starts to grieve when she's interrupted by Donald (Anthony), a rather nosy but ingratiating artist who tells her he's her neighbor across the hall.
As Annie tries to put her life back in order, Donald manages to befriend her. He is happily married, but his wife is away on business, and he thinks a platonic relationship with Annie would do her good. The friendship is in decided contrast to Annie's problems at work, where colleague Elliot (LeGette) is clearly infatuated with her. Annie likes Elliot, but his hypernervous romantic zeal turns her off completely. Donald suggests that she should accept Elliot's persistent lunch invitations and see what happens. What happens is an interesting dilemma when Annie runs from the frying pan of romantic frustration with Elliot to the fire of confusing passions when she discovers she has longings for Donald.
The script was written by Jeff Daniels, the star of such films as Pleasantville, Dumb & Dumber, and Something Wild. (Before I discuss his play any further, I must disclose that he and I have some brief history together. In 1989 Daniels agreed to play the lead in The Rewrite, a short film I wrote and was scheduled to direct. He withdrew before production began, and the project was never made.) Daniels, despite fame in the other Hollywood, still lives with his family in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan. There he maintains his own stage company, the Purple Rose, named after Woody Allen's film The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which Daniels was featured as a movie adventurer character who steps off the screen and into Mia Farrow's life. Apartment 3A, which tends to echo that premise in some ways, is one of seven or so plays Daniels has penned for his company. He has constructed this simple one-set play in a theatrically postmodern way, with scenes that overlap and sometimes run concurrently: Annie often acts out with Elliot what she later tells Donald in retrospect.
This device really clicks at times, as when Annie reluctantly gives in to Elliot's persistent seduction (on a table, no less) while Donald stands off to one side, listening as Annie explains what happened with Elliot. Annie tries to maintain her conversation with Donald, but Elliot's relentless ministrations start turning her on; the combined interplay between both forms of intercourse makes for a clever sequence. There's also a wham-bang second-act surprise that may take audiences' breath away -- though some will probably see where the whole thing is leading before they are supposed to. Daniels's central premise to this modern fairy tale, that true love can often be lost without faith and patience, is certainly viable. But overall, the writing is more charming than it is exciting.
Director St. Leon shows an adept touch, with a clear narrative and pictorial control and crisp, sprightly pacing. She has plenty to work with: Anthony, dressed in a flowing white shirt, makes for a dashing, totally suave Donald, whose utter devotion to his wife is really what thrills Annie. LeGette is also fine as Annie's nervous would-be swain, whose heart is so full of love that he trips over it at every turn. Anthony and LeGette are rock-solid, perhaps too much so: They tend to dominate every scene they're in, even though most of these are supposed to belong to Annie, who carries the emotional arc of the narrative.
Safina clearly has a lock on Annie's appeal but doesn't seem willing to explore the character's messier aspects. Annie is meant to enter the story after a harrowing night of betrayal, blind fury, flight, and desperate wandering, driving all her possessions in a hastily rented U-Haul while searching for a place to spend the night. Safina doesn't bring much of this emotional backstory into the scene with her, instead coming in cool, collected, her hair and makeup perfect. Likewise, in the second act, Annie is clearly supposed to have a major meltdown during an on-camera pledge drive. But Safina doesn't go deep enough or dark enough. The result is an appealing but risk-free performance where something more dangerous and emotionally naked is called for.
Some of this weakness must be laid at the feet of director St. Leon, who appears to have reined in some of the play's potential contradictions. In the second act, Elliot discovers that Annie is less in love with him than with her fantasies about Donald. It's a humiliating revelation in which love, sorrow, and anger collide -- and one that echoes Annie's own sexual betrayal. The audience really shouldn't know what will happen next in this explosive situation. But St. Leon keeps her cast in pretty tame territory -- you know that Elliot is just going to suck it up and suffer bravely and that Annie is going to see the light about him sooner or later. The result is a Hollywood ending that's not in much doubt. These reservations aside, there is also not much doubt about this Hollywood beginning. Apartment 3A marks a promising start to what I hope will be a vibrant and popular new theater venue and a creative home where all this talent -- St. Leon, Anthony, and company -- can thrive.
Readers of this column might also be interested in a new local theatrical magazine, Profiles, that has just begun publication. Robert Alpert, the peripatetic president of the Acting Studio, decided to publish Profiles to help fill a media gap in the arts community: "The papers cover the shows, but the theater and film scene here needs more coverage of people, available services, and long-range trends." To that end, Alpert places the free quarterly in theaters, agencies, and community centers around the region.
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