Ring Lardner, Jr. and Dalton Trumbo intended The Fishermen of Beaudrais to be a screenplay when they wrote it 60 or so years ago. Yet, due to a number of factors - their appearances before the HUAC in the 1950s chief among them, according to the program note - it was never produced. Joseph Rinaldi and Kathleen Rowlands have taken it upon themselves to present the work not as a film, but a stage play for Firedrake Productions.
That's but one of the many problems facing The Fishermen of Beaudrais. That a screenplay is not a stage script is a true enough fact, and one that will sink many directors, though one with the right creative resources could find a way to overcome such an obstacle. Keith Oncale is not that director. At times his production seems to want to retain a screenplay's lack of geographic restrictions, while still retaining a play's power and intimacy. The work he does here never lets him have it both ways.
Granted, it can't be easy working with such a large cast (17 actors) in the cramped confines of the Bank Street Theatre, but Oncale's attempts at theatrical approximations of cinematic split scenes or dissolves leave a great deal to be desired. With the performers moving large set pieces on and off, frequently loudly and always without the benefit of a curtain, the scene changes add significant minutes to the show's running time. With 26 scenes, this quickly proves detrimental.
And with a story like this, every second counts. The denser and more taut the action and the sharper the characterizations, the easier it will be to relate to the plight of the people of Beaudrais, France, suddenly deprived of their liberty and freedom when invaded by the Nazis in 1940. It's a place where, even in the face of great adversity, an elderly drifter (Matt Conley) may prove a heroic figure, or a young woman (Jennifer Lindsey), one of the foremost victims of the Nazi takeover, could find love with the dashing young man (Richard Simon) who'll give his life - or the lives of others - to fight them.
The premise itself is strong, with meaningful, identifiable ties to the world of today that could make for some compelling drama. But with few complexities in the writing, and fewer trenchant insights into any side of the situation, the show often falls flat. It's forgivable that the Germans are scripted as the cunning yet deadly cardboard adversaries one might expect from an early 1940s screenplay, but less acceptable that the actors playing those roles - or any roles in the production - would humanize them enough to create a colored, layered drama for 2003. The characters aren't, by nature, boring, they simply seem that way with the portrayals they're given here.
Lindsey is very straightforward, and she gives the most realistic overall performance. Rinaldi makes a strong appearance as one of the lead Germans, though tends to fall into the one-dimensional portrayal the script makes too easy. Joe Primavera, as the town's deposed mayor, brings something of an upright charm to his role, while Stephen Aloi and Matt Hussong wring as much comedy out of their roles as is probably possible for, well, Nazis. Most of the other performers are less successful. Simon, though he gains stride as the show reaches its conclusion, has difficult conveying a consistent characterization earlier on.
The bigger issue is the play's central role, Louis, occupied by Conley. He well portrays the vagrant's fondness for wine, but little of innate sense of courage or conviction that necessarily defines the character, even under the surface. As Louis's role in the future of Beaudrais becomes more important scriptwise, Conley's dramatic transitions feel erratic and untrue, the show's final moments which he anchors - apparently intended to be triumphant - curiously heartless.
Problematic as the contributions Conley and Rinaldi make to the show are, it's difficult to assign them the balance of the blame; The Fishermen of Beaudrais is more concept than script, and more idea than screenplay, an idea suggesting a fine story that never materializes in the dialogue. While it's certainly possible that establishing shots, close-ups, and other conventions of film could provide the show with the soul it lacks, it would be difficult, if not outright impossible, to do onstage. Perhaps, then, The Fishermen of Beaudrais is better appreciated for what it might have been than what it ended up being.