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Terms of Endearment

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 16, 2016

Molly Ringwald and Hannah Dunne
Photo by Carol Rosegg

If you are going to adapt a well-known book or movie for a theatrical production, there are a couple of ways to go about it. You can use the source material as inspiration and take it in a new direction, or you can embrace it and try to make it come to life onstage. With Terms of Endearment, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters, playwright Dan Gordon tries to take a middle ground, with mixed results. And the production is neither hindered nor especially helped by the presence of the iconic movie "Brat Pack" actress Molly Ringwald in the central role of Aurora Greenway, whose teetering relationship with her daughter drives the plot.

This is the third time this season 59E59 has been the home for such adaptations. Conor McPherson's The Birds was a dystopian deconstruction of the famous Daphne du Maurier story that eschewed any reference to the Alfred Hitchcock film. The Collector was a fairly faithful adaptation of the cringe-inducing John Fowles novel about a sexual predator, with no reference to the movie of the same title.

For Terms of Endearment, Dan Gordon draws from both Larry McMurtry's novel and James L. Brooks's screenplay of the same title. The 1983 movie won Academy Awards for best picture, directing, and writing, and for two of its stars, Shirley MacLaine as Aurora and Jack Nicholson as her neighbor Garrett Breedlove, a sleazy yet somehow charming ex-astronaut with whom she gets involved. Convincing a theater audience to set aside their pre-conceived expectations is a mighty tall order.

The play, like its source materials, follows the love-hate relationship between Aurora and her daughter Emma over the course of a couple of decades. Aurora is a bigger-than-life self-centered woman who prides herself on her honesty as she berates Emma: "You are too poor, and too fat. And please oblige me and have something done to your hair. Honestly, I think you'd look better bald." For her part, at least as played by Hannah Dunne and directed by Michael Parva, Emma takes it all in her stride, barely wincing at either her mother's insults or the difficulties that arise in her marriage to Flap Horton (Denver Milord), a college professor with an eye for the coeds. Emma is so ethereal, in fact, that the weepy ending suits her well.

The production comes alive most fully with the appearance of Jeb Brown as Breedlove, the former astronaut who now spends most of his time drinking and chasing after women who are drawn to his semi-celebrity status. Brown succeeds in bringing Breedlove to life by channeling Jack Nicholson's portrayal, swagger and potbelly included. Because he grabs onto the role with such gusto, Brown easily takes command of every scene in which he appears, and even Ms. Ringwald's generally low-key performance rises to a much higher level when the two are together on stage.

Unfortunately, the basic plotline unfolds like a checklist. Aurora and Emma talk on the phone every day, Aurora berates Emma for not rising above her station as Flip's wife and mother to their three children, and Garrett Breedlove awakens Aurora's heart through a middle-aged love affair. Their banter, their moments of honest affection, and even their sexual sparks are the highlights of what otherwise is the CliffsNotes version of McMurtry's novel and Brooks's screenplay.

Terms of Endearment
Through December 11
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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