If, as Jean-Luc Godard said, film is truth 24 frames a second, what does that make theatre? More truthful, because what you're seeing unfolds before you in real time? Or less truthful, because you must interpret events without the camera as a completely objective intercessor?
There might be a great play that explores the complex similarities and differences between theatre and film, but Neena Beber's Jump/Cut, at the Julia Miles Theatre, isn't it. It's a generically well-intentioned look at the increasingly blurry lines that separate life, entertainment, and truth, but one in which the playwright's devotion to edgy invention only ensures that most of the play's potential impact is left on the cutting-room floor.
Director Leigh Silverman has done everything possible to bring theatrical gravitas to Beber's too-celluloid script. She and set designer Narelle Sissons have transformed the playing area into a makeshift sound stage-cum-living room, which uses Brian Beasley's projections on its rear wall for additional scenic detail and Mary Louise Geiger's lights to simulate jump cuts and temporarily distract us during the transitions between dramatic beats.
The net effect is that we're violently thrust between the real world of documentary director Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and the reel-world story behind the story he's committed to film. Unfortunately, the jump cuts' distraction becomes crucial to stretching Beber's bare sketch of a story to full-evening length: Nothing about it warrants any special treatment whatever; it barely warrants emotional consideration outside an MTV Real World marathon.
In brief: Paul is a frustrated filmmaker who tries to avoid selling out (defined here as directing donut commercials) by conceiving a documentary about his bipolar best friend, frustrated novelist Dave (Luke Kirby). Dave's a trust fund baby living off of Paul's couch, but when Paul turns his camera and attentions toward Dave, Dave starts to get to know Paul's new girlfriend Karen (Michi Barall), also a frustrated writer, a bit too well.
As things dissolve into a bitterly observed love triangle, the frustrated audience has it even tougher: The story only starts in earnest in the play's final quarter, when the parallel stories of Dave's manic depression and the looming completion of Paul's documentary converge into one. The rest of the time, only the jump cuts and the fourth-wall-violating (screen-violating?) narration of the characters directly involve us in the proceedings, and the characters are too shallowly conceived and written to seem of legitimate concern.
They're all depicted as little more than mid-to-late-twentysomethings for whom art is the beginning, end, and everything in between; they live by their pens and plan to die by them. Paul, the show's most frequent narrator, is especially effusive when it comes to his musing on his work, and finds multiple layers of meaning in everything. One of his typically florid ruminations: "A movie is a series of still images. Action broken down to its smallest separate - components. Motion, it seems, is an optical illusion."
It can't be easy to fashion performances around such writing, but the actors do practically nothing to allow us to perceive the people beneath the clichés, and instead glibly sleepwalk through the back lots of their characters' lives. Sadoski breaks Paul down to his smallest separate components (stiff, sexually obsessed, artistically unyielding, etc.), but never connects the dots; Barall plays Karen as a soft-edged businesswoman gaining increasingly sharp, but never convinces as the purportedly deep siren who could captivate both men; Kirby apparently sees Dave as living within his own private B-movie, and delivers accordingly broad line readings and acting choices.
He is, however, responsible for the play's sole moving moment: As Dave's life spins increasingly out of control in front of Paul's lens, Kirby allows Dave's shell of artifice to crack and reveal a real person suffering from real confliction underneath. When he must face the difficult choice of a life either devoid of emotion or governed by uncontrollable feelings, his voice loses its put-upon droll resonance, his face relaxes, and he refashions himself into that most terrifying of creatures: a human being laying bare his true self.
The special power of theatre is summoned in this moment, the magic that lets you experience another's pain in a profoundly personal way. Film doesn't allow this: If it's more intimate in the way it brings you closer to the people it captures, it can never be more intensely immediate - you can never truly join a person as they face a life-or-death decision, as you can with Dave. Theatre thrives on this connection between the playwright, actor, and audience, but in Jump/Cut it's a union that's never formed often enough.