The Role Of His Life

Richard Chamberlain is spending the month of July in the Norman Rockwell setting of Stockbridge, Mass., where the Berkshire Theatre Festival, one of America’s most famous summer-stock companies, is celebrating its 75th year, and television’s once-hunky Dr. Kildare is celebrating a few things himself. In his personal life, he is nearing 70 and currently the author of Shattered Love , a highly publicized autobiography in which the blond, blue-eyed, all-American king of the miniseries officially comes out of the closet and describes the torturous years he wasted hiding his homosexuality from the world to protect his career as a Hollywood heartthrob. Onstage, Mr. Chamberlain is starring in a new play entitled The Stillborn Lover as a gay Canadian ambassador who has spent his entire career in the diplomatic corps living a lie. Awash with ironies, the similarity to the star’s own life has not gone unnoticed. Maybe this explains his attraction to a powerful and liberating role in a play that is otherwise something of a muddle. At any rate, he still cuts a fine figure onstage, and he is not alone. The distinguished cast also features top-drawer performances by Keir Dullea, Jessica Walter and the sensational Lois Nettleton. This is not your grandma’s straw-hat circuit.

The Stillborn Lover , which is a major attraction in the kelly-green Berkshires through July 26, is an American premiere by the late Canadian novelist Timothy Findley, who died in June 2002, before he could polish, fine-tune and save this unwieldy work from its present state of insufferable longwindedness. And the role Mr. Chamberlain is playing to the sold-out audiences of shocked fans who remember him from The Thorn Birds and Shogun works up a lather primarily because he is playing it. He is Harry Raymond, Canada’s ambassador to Moscow and one of the country’s most respected career diplomats, who is suddenly called home following the brutal murder of a Russian male prostitute. No explanation has been given for his abrupt departure from the Soviet Union, but there is secret evidence that links the ambassador to the victim. Meanwhile, Harry and his wife Marion (Lois Nettleton), who is suffering from the early grip of Alzheimer’s, are temporarily held for interrogation in a “safe house” in Ottawa by Harry’s best friend Michael Riordan (Keir Dullea), a cabinet minister whose ambition is set on becoming Canada’s next prime minister. The scandal in Moscow has served as a tourniquet to the flow of their long-standing friendship, and as political storm clouds gather, even Michael’s sympathetic, sophisticated wife Juliet (Jessica Walter) find herself torn between her loyalty to old friends and her desperation to become Canada’s next first lady. In the extensive oratories that fill the gaps between the occasional flashes of genuine emotion, everyone sounds off on every topic except the ones the audience craves for clarity. While Harry is under surveillance, a buffed military policeman continually strips down to total frontal nudity-for what purpose? Seducing Harry into a confession? And what is it that he is supposed to confess? There is no proof that he had anything to do with the murder in Moscow. It isn’t even clear what threat his sexy Russian lover posed in endangering national security. There is a revelation that Harry attended Cambridge with famous espionage agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Is he a spy? Meanwhile, the real secret is the wife’s sordid role in this mysterious scenario. Watching the husband she loves dying of denial, procuring and offering him young men from Cairo to Nagasaki, was she collaborating with secret agents out of neglect, jealousy and resentment, in order to frame him?

The Stillborn Lover asks many questions, but provides no satisfactory answers. It’s a play full of question marks. Worse yet, director Martin Rabbett has staged it in a series of stilted tableaus on an annoying Japanese set constructed on raised levels behind pillars with sliding doors, overlooking a river. Strange metallic music and the cries of seagulls intrude at the most indelicate moments, while exasperating white columns completely obscure some of the actors’ best scenes from the audience’s view during their most important revelations. The set is a logistical nightmare. But despite a multitude of obvious physical and dramaturgical problems, the cast manages bravely to reveal the duplicitous nature of the diplomatic corps, while Mr. Chamberlain gamely probes the plight of a lonely, sacrificial homosexual who has spent his whole existence as unfulfilled as an unsharpened pencil or an unread book. Self-described as a “stillborn lover,” passing through other people’s lives on a diplomatic passport, and forced by the silly, self-serving rules of a society of hypocrites to deny himself the truth of his own identity, Ambassador Harry Raymond and actor Richard Chamberlain become the same conflicted person. Rarely has one actor found one role in one play in which the passion is so personal. This is why The Stillborn Lover is a play that is flawed but still worth doing, and why a summer drive up to the Berkshire Theatre Festival is a trip worth taking to watch Richard Chamberlain do it.

Fresh Frears

In a summer polluted by the noxious fumes of movie garbage, take your craving for something offbeat, original and challenging to the sensational new British film Dirty Pretty Things , directed by the brilliant Stephen Frears. (More greatness is coming Aug. 1 with the arrival of the eagerly anticipated Irish film The Magdalene Sisters , but more about that later.) This week, if you can overcome a really stupid and pointless title that sounds like a description of the terrifying sluts in the Charlie’s Angels franchise, concentrate on Dirty Pretty Things , a strange thriller of fresh and unconventional vitality that is guaranteed to keep you alert and spellbound.

In one of those London hotels that look disarmingly grand until you check in and discover the heat doesn’t work and the plumbing dates back to Anne Boleyn, a Nigerian night porter (played by the critically acclaimed British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds a human heart blocking the toilet in Room 510. Mortified, he rushes to the shady hotel manager (played by the marvelous Spanish actor Sergi López), who indifferently informs him, “Strangers will always surprise you. They come to hotels in the night to do dirty things-in the morning, it is our job to make things look pretty again.” The poor night clerk, a decent and conscientious man, would like to call the police, but his hands are tied because he’s an illegal immigrant-a once-respected doctor in his native land, now reduced through penury to working as a cabdriver during the day and menial work on the hotel staff at night, and sharing a small apartment with a hotel chambermaid, a Muslim girl from Turkey (French sensation Audrey Tatou, stripped of all traces of the gamin charm she displayed in Amélie ). They are both people without passports, visas or identities, trying to remain anonymous, facing deportation if discovered. In fact, the entire hotel seems to be a hiding place for illegal immigrants, and what director Frears sets out to do so skillfully is show the dangerous plights of these people, living without money or friends in a country that affords them hope but no security, in a film designed as a gothic horror story. As the doctor and the maid discover that the hotel is the site of a cruel and inhuman black-market operation, they find themselves in double jeopardy-trying to survive London’s implacable immigration officers and the hotel’s devious racketeers. In the process, Mr. Frears, director of such lurid dramas as Prick Up Your Ears and The Grifters , and debut screenwriter Steve Knight have created an underworld that is like a parallel universe to the city seen through the windows of tourist buses. The compositions of scenes by cinematographer Chris Menges form a dark purple scar on the landscape of the London we all know and love. The result is a grim, overcrowded and subterranean London which, although modern and without gaslights, would easily have welcomed, in their day, the likes of Dr. Crippen, Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper.

Working in a gritty, unfussy style, Mr. Frears explores the ghastly fates that await the exploited, disenfranchised immigrants who exist on the margins of English society. Desperate to stay in the country, many sell vital organs like kidneys and lungs in exchange for passports and money, often at the mercy of hacks and butchers. Results are sometimes fatal. This story focuses on the doctor, the chambermaid, a tragic but comical whore and the hotel doorman, who uncover a ring of dastardly surgeons performing shocking operations in the empty guest rooms and bravely risk their lives to save other victims and avoid arrest, eventually resorting to a lawless justice of their own that leaves audiences cheering. There is no corny love story, no easy resolution to the anxieties and fears these immigrants face. The predicament, Mr. Frears implies, is a universal one. The director has always shown an impolite fascination with the psychological underbelly of British life. Who could forget My Beautiful Laundrette , or the murder of Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears ? This time he opens the door to a clandestine midnight world journalists and novelists write about but few of us will ever see firsthand. The realities of the issues that have captured Mr. Frears’ attention in Dirty Pretty Things are brutal, but in his inimitable fashion he even humanizes the Grand Guignol aspects of the story, creating a cast of totally real and immensely sympathetic characters. Mr. Ejiofor brings supreme dignity to the role of the deeply conflicted former doctor who becomes a reluctant and accidental hero, while Ms. Tatou finds new depths of range as the wide-eyed innocent reduced by survival instincts, in a country hell-bent on expelling her, to fear, loathing and finally affirmative action. It is amazing that this is a British film set in London, since there is neither one conventional British character in it, nor a single shot of Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. Nothing about Dirty Pretty Things is what you might expect. This is a motion-picture experience unlike anything you’ve seen before-provocative, intensely moving, as troubling and unforgettable as a recurring nightmare.

Flooding the Market

From the intriguing to the downright idiotic, there is a loopy load of pretentious surrealism called Northfork , another freakout by the alleged writing-directing team the Polish Brothers, who previously polluted the ozone with Twin Falls Idaho . Boring and mind-numbingly banal, it begs to be called the worst movie ever made, but unfortunately that position is already filled with a three-way tie between Hudson Hawk, Vanilla Sky and The Story of Mankind, the epic 1957 fiasco with Dennis Hopper as Napoleon, Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton, Peter Lorre as Nero and Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc. This one is in there competing, though. To the deadly thump of Lefty Frizzell and Blackie Crawford’s “Always Late (With Your Kisses),” a western town is going to be flooded to make way for a hydroelectric plant. Among the handful of stalwarts who refuse to leave are a modern Noah with two wives and an Ark, a man who has nailed his shoes to the ground, an orphan boy believed to be a lost angel with amputated wings and gravel-voiced Nick Nolte, who mumbles, mutters and inaudibly whispers his way through the role of a hairy, crippled minister. Along comes a government-financed evacuation committee, six weirdoes headed by James Woods, who stalk the streets, roam through the deserted buildings wearing black trenchcoats and black fedoras, and look hilariously like the gangland specters in Les Vampyrs . Left behind to wander cemetery holes, the boy who calls himself “The Unknown Angel” encounters a giraffe on four wooden stilts and four brain-fried freaks from another century, including an actual talking “Cup of Tea,” Anthony Edwards as a blind double-amputee named Happy and the always bizarre Daryl Hannah, more bizarre than ever, as an androgynous hermaphrodite in an Elizabethan collar and a black crew cut. The members of the evacuation committee, who all drive the same black Fords, say things like “Ever since we started moving people out, we’ve never done well with people who own Chevys.” One entire scene is devoted to the heartbreak of a dent in a car fender caused by a flying rock. The Unknown Angel asks Daryl Hannah, “Are you going to be my mother or my father?” “Both,” replies the hermaphrodite who can’t act-“it makes for the perfect soul.” They all take off in a World War II prop plane sipping tea like guests of the Mad Hatter. Cup of Tea says, “How I long to be Earl Grey.”

In the immortal words of Nancy and Sluggo, “Huh?” Why did all of these gullible fools get involved in this fiendish misery in the first place? It’s not for the money. It’s supposed to be set in Montana, but looks like an open trench in Afghanistan and couldn’t possibly have cost more than a buck ninety-five. You stare at Northfork trying to make sense of it, knowing it makes no sense because the people who made it never intended it to make any sense. The press notes call it “a beguiling story of loss and resurrection, about adjusting to the strange new places towards which we sometimes find ourselves heading.” I found no problem heading for the door marked “Exit.”