While a small but exultant audience took their seats at the Kraine Theatre, the entire cast of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski slowly shuffled onto the empty stage, just to make their collective presence known. Not yet in costume, DMTheatrics’s (DMT) troupe of actors nervously talked among themselves; some tried to look nonchalant and confident while others tried to get in the zone for their upcoming performance with some light breathing exercises. This was the show’s most idiosyncratic moment, an ingratiating, unrehearsed introduction to the players and also the only time that they as a cast looked relatively at ease on stage.
That’s probably because, at some basic level, they realize that the humor and the setting of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, the source material that playwright Adam Bertocci’s pseudo-Shakespearian play is based on, are inextricable. Trying to translating the Coens’ idiosyncratic sense of humor into another medium, let alone with the affected stance of a Shakespearian farce, is not only unnecessary, but frankly an almost impossible task. Sure enough, Bertocci’s script is a long one-note joke whose potency has a remarkably short shelf life. The mechanicals never had a chance.
Bertocci originally got the idea to adapt The Big Lebowski into a play last November after banging out a couple of lines from the Coens’ screenplay in mock-Shakespearian verse on his Facebook page. From there, he spent a scant three weeks cranking out a script and boy does it show. Rather than attempt to merge the tropes of the Bard’s comedies with The Big Lebowski’s stoner noir plot, Bertocci instead wrote a rough line-for-line translation of the play, scattering contemporary references to Ben Johnson, nine pins, and “Orient-men” along the way in hopes of making his stiff venture somewhat more elastic. With such thin material, it’s no wonder that the players were anxious.
One of the key impracticalities that director Frank Cwiklik faced in setting Bertocci’s brashly literal script to the stage is staging its central all-caps confrontations without deflating the delicate absurdity of those arguments. The play, like the film, revolves around the question of how Jeffrey “The Knave” Lebowski (Josh Mertz) can help a second Jeffrey Lebowski (Ed Lane), this one a wealthy philanthropist, retrieve his wife Bonnie from varmint-owning German nihilists, who are holding her ransom. Everyone want something from the Knave and none of them is telling him the whole truth, a truth he finds out the hard way. Accordingly, he spends a lot of time going over events that just occurred in an attempt to figure out what they mean and what he should do next.
Because the Knave mulls over those events with the irascible Sir Walter (Bob Laine), a veteran and a part-time Jew with a tendency to equivocate, and the oblivious Donald (Stewart Urist), most of these rap sessions are heated exercises in futility. As no substantial changes were made by Bertocci from the Coens’ script, the volume and the shrill pitch of these arguments rapidly devolve into a series of overlapping arguments when set on the stage. In these scenes, Laine towers over the rest of the cast, transitioning between hollering and screaming with aplomb. He perfectly conveys the incoherent tone of Bertocci/Cwiklik’s play.
Another especially frustrating failing of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski is the way it smirks at the concept of removing the Coens’ film from its context. The Big Lebowski is probably the most timely, period-specific of the brothers’ works. It’s about a fixed place in time in America, specifically L.A. in 1991. It’s a story about what happens when the particularly estranging kind of social imbalance that was pervasive in L.A. at the time invades the home of a man whose entire life philosophy is apathy. The Dude only gets involved in Lebowski’s troubles because a nihilist pees on his rug (“Indeed, a rug of value; an estimable rug, an honour’d rug”) and he wants to get it replaced.
Similarly, without the original film’s precarious sense of harmonious elements, from the cast to the cadences of the Coens’ dialogue, you get a cheap replica like Two Gentlemen of Lebowski that over-compensates for its lack of imagination with a lot of bluster and very little of its source material’s innovative sense of humor. There are good performances in this mess, especially Brianna Tyson’s Maude Lebowski, even Craig Kelton Peterson, one of the nihilists whose irrepressibly silly gyrating elevates his bit performance from “that guy in the background” to “that weird guy that keeps popping into the foreground.” But that rug really did tie the room together.
The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski is now playing at the Kraine Theater (85 East 4th St., bet. 2nd Ave. and Bowery) in New York City and continues until April 4th. Schedule: Thu and Mon, and Tue March 30th, at 8pm; Fri and Sat at 7:30pm. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.