The Housewife and the Homicide

At the movies as in life, just when everything looks hopeless, help arrives when least expected. So it is with a marvelous and tantalizing new thriller, The Deep End , which has already surfed a wave of justifiably enthusiastic advance praise on the film-festival circuit and is now ready to liven the pace of a putrid, brain-dead summer.

The Deep End stars the fascinating Scottish actress Tilda Swinton as Margaret Hall, a nice, responsible Lake Tahoe housewife and mother of three whose respectable world is plunged into a nightmare of blackmail and murder when she discovers a dead body on the beach near her comfortable lakefront home. It’s an accidental killing, but Margaret suspects much worse. Things have already been festering: In the absence of her husband, a Navy officer on an aircraft carrier and unreachable by phone, she has suspected for some time that their sensitive, troubled teenage son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a bright student with a promising future as a musician, has been hanging out in a Reno gay bar called the Deep End. Now she recognizes the corpse near their boathouse as the seedy club owner that Beau has been seeing despite her warnings. Propelled by the fear that Beau may have been responsible for the man’s death, anxious to avoid scandal and desperate to protect her son from ruining his college prospects (not to mention jail), the devoted mother impulsively hides the body herself.

The ripple effect of this legal and moral transgression is immediately felt when a dark, impulsive blackmailer named Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic, the hunky Bosnian on TV’s ER ) shows up demanding $50,000 in exchange for a pornographic tape of Beau in bed with the man the newspapers have labeled a murder victim. Numb with shock, Margaret has 24 hours to raise the money before the blackmailer turns the tape over to the Tahoe police. Between carting her other kids to ballet class and baseball games, Margaret tries to raise the money by hocking her jewelry, liquidating her assets and draining her accounts, to no avail. Exposed and alone, Margaret sinks deeper into crisis, and her cool veneer inevitably cracks. Ironically, her only sympathetic ally turns out to be the blackmailer, a lonely and compassionate small-time crook who becomes infatuated with her decency and vulnerability, takes pity on her family and eventually makes a noble sacrifice of his own to save her. In the heartbreaking finale, the estranged mother and son–both with their own secrets–share a common strength through renewed values, although their lives will never be the same.

The Deep End is based on The Blank Wall , a terrific novel by Elisabeth Holding, a newly rediscovered writer of the kind of daunting chillers Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon should be commissioning before sundown. It was filmed by Max Ophüls in 1949 as The Reckless Moment with Joan Bennett and James Mason, but this is not a remake. A gay son has been substituted for a wayward daughter, the settings and family values have been updated, and the story has a fresh, contemporary feel, with the majestic backdrop of the California-Nevada border providing a sunny, all-American backdrop for the dark, noirish events that unfold. The casting is vital, and every role is serviced perfectly, but it’s the powerful chemistry between the crudely handsome Goran Visnjic, as the seductive blackmailer who finds his heart, and the extraordinary Tilda Swinton, as the unremarkable mother who finds her soul, that makes the film relentlessly captivating.

Dark, dangerous and camera-ready, Mr. Visnjic is a star in the making, while Ms. Swinton seems to glide effortlessly into the driver’s seat. Her raw, plain milk-and-corn-flakes complexion, backlit by the Tahoe sun, has an anguish that is palpable. Nothing she does–whether it’s doing the laundry or searching underwater for car keys in the pants of a corpse–seems planned or rehearsed. It’s impressive to see so much emotion pouring out of a face that is basically featureless. Her naturalism is vivid, and like all actors trained in the British isles, her American accent is flawless.

Written and directed by the exemplary team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, The Deep End combines the domestic realism of Sue Grafton with the brooding, melancholic terror of Raymond Chandler in a meticulously structured film noir that extracts maximum tension from the most ordinary things–goldfish circling in a bowl, a rusty anchor, an awkward trumpet solo, a leaky faucet dripping water in slow motion like liquid mercury. All of the elements come together seamlessly. Best of all, it signals a welcome return to a vanished genre in which innocent heroines who find themselves accidentally submerged in the harrowing depths of the criminal underworld are forced to find courage, cunning and a depth of character they never knew they had in order to survive in one piece. Give us more, please, and fast.

Three Guys Dig Up a TV Dreamgirl

In Music from a Sparkling Planet , the entertaining new comedy by Douglas Carter Beane that’s attracting a mob scene down at the Greenwich House Theater on Barrow Street, three bored and disillusioned thirtysomethings whose lives have not turned out according to plan sit gabbing in a Philadelphia bar, playing trivia games to avoid real life. When they get around to the question “Who was your favorite local Philly TV personality in the days of your youth?”, Dr. Dead, the host of a defunct show called Creature Features , almost wins, but the unanimous decision is Tamara Tomorrow, a visitor from another planet in yellow curls and psychedelic space shoes who rocked their 6-year-old world with her perky energy and positive predictions for the future between animated Japanese sci-fi cartoons. Back in the 1970’s, Tamara was so popular she even beat The Mike Douglas Show in the afternoon ratings.

Worrying about whatever happened to Tamara beats going home, so Hoagie (Ross Gibby), a physical trainer who cannot commit to a relationship, Wags (Josh Hamilton), a nervous, stressed-out lawyer, and Miller (T. Scott Cunningham), a gay P.R. man who faces a joyless future in the age of AIDS, embark on a mission to find the lost icon of their trouble-free youth. They haunt the memorabilia shops buying Tamara badges and dolls. They collect Tamara recipes and press clippings. Posing as reporters doing a story on retro nostalgia, their journey leads to Tamara’s old TV station, where her producer threatens to throw them out, and eventually to Tamara herself (or what’s left of her). By then, the point is made: Don’t go looking for the past, because you might find it.

Deftly written by Mr. Beane and quirkily staged by Mark Brokaw, the play unfolds in a series of smart, punchy scenes, juxtaposing the hollow present with hallowed 70’s flashbacks that reveal the true story of the offstage Tamara (an unhappy woman named Sharon Phipps who drank too much, fell in love with a married man, suffered a nervous breakdown on camera in front of thousands of kiddies and ended up in a rehab clinic). To her last three fan-club loyalists, she overshadowed Watergate and Vietnam. Little did they know that she was as unhappy then as they are now. When they finally find her, working as a dumpy desk clerk at the seedy, hideous Starlux Motel in Wildwood, N.J., the reality of a spent youth when they were fearless and full of hope comes crashing down in a scene of poignant revelation. But this play is not over. Reviving Tamara’s old career for a new target audience of baby boomers, Gen-X’ers, gays, lesbians and children of alcoholics, her preppie saviors head for a sappy and not-altogether-convincing finale that suggests the good old days might best be left alone in a drawer of old videotapes and kinescopes. Maybe the good old days were never as good as they seemed in the first place.

Mr. Beane, who wrote the engaging play As Bees in Honey Drown , knows the territory and mines it crisply. He is most fortunate to have a talented cast to bring it to life engagingly, especially the smashing J. Smith-Cameron (his leading lady from As Bees in Honey Drown ) to turn Tamara Tomorrow into a cosmic force with her own exclusive built-in solar system. The best scenes in the show display this versatile comic meteor on a series of TV monitors in supersonic 70’s space gear, bringing a naïve era of black-and-white programming into focus with such accurate retro humor that I expected to look around and find Dave Garroway, J. Fred Muggs, Pinky Lee and Howdy Doody in the audience.

Donna McKechnie: I’m Still Here!

After she won a Tony award for A Chorus Line in 1976, vivacious Donna McKechnie was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and told she would never walk again, much less dance. Do not mess around with a Broadway gypsy. One career derailment, two divorces and several additional heartbreaks later, she sings, dances and candidly tells all in a new act at Arci’s Place (through Aug. 11) that finds her once again at the top of her game.

Defining herself through hard work, Ms. McKechnie transfers her can-do determination to succeed despite the odds to an adoring audience in this one-woman show that is not so much an “act” as a guided tour through life upon the wicked stage. Illustrating musical numbers from her shows with anecdotes, she sings a sweet, delicately modulated “In Buddy’s Eyes” (from Follies ), recreates Bob Fosse’s original choreography on a show-stopping “If My Friends Could See Me Now” (from Sweet Charity ) and sings all three of the trio parts on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (from Company ). A highlight is “Astaire,” a tuneful tribute to you-know-who written by Ann Hampton Callaway and Lindy Robbins, accompanied by a true story about the night the MGM star picked her up backstage and waltzed her around his living room later (it’s not clear who led and who followed).

The thing is, Donna McKechnie is still singing and dancing, like the veteran trouper she was destined to be. Arci’s has even erected a stage for her engagement, and she fills every square inch of it to a well-deserved standing ovation. Why do producers of Broadway musicals still post open-call audition notices in Back Stage that scream “Wanted: a Donna McKechnie type!” when the real thing is right under their noses–here, now and better than ever? The Housewife and the Homicide