Macbeth in Manhattan

SXSW Festival, Austin, March 14, 1999–Nicely produced and decently acted, Macbeth in Manhattan is a variation on a familiar idea, one that goes back to George Cukor's A Double Life, that actors get so absorbed in their screen roles that they can't separate between their professional and personal lives. Greg Lombardo's directorial debut doesn't have the dramatic impact and visual magic that Vanya on 42nd Street had, but like Louis Malle's contempo New York-set yarn, it makes good use of downtown Manhattan in recounting a modern version of Shakespeare's famous play. A small distributor should consider limited theatrical release for a film that stars, among others, Gloria Reuben (of TV's ER) and John Glover, as a showcase for its talented helmer and co-scripter.

Reuben plays Claudia, a young actress who auditions with her live-in lover Max (David Lansbury, Angela's nephew) for the lead roles in a New York production of Macbeth. They both get the coveted roles, and all's well until the director (John Glover) decides to bring a bigger name, William (Nick Gregory, Andre's son) for the role of Macbeth and to offer Max the supporting role of Macduff. This turn of events ignites a parallel, modern version of Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition, seduction, revenge and murder, recounted as a backstage melodrama.

The first hour is most engaging in establishing the contempo identities of the dramatis persona and how excited they all are at working on a new production of Shakespeare's cursed play. Switching back and forth, between life on stage to off, script draws on the animosity between Max and William, the growing sexual attraction between William and Claudia, who begin to rehearse at home in the evening, and the effects of the production on an increasingly jealous and obsessed Max.

However, as soon as these parameters become clear, the movie's tensions decline, as most audiences are well familiar with Shakespeare's play and the numerous stage, screen and TV productions it has received. As co-writer and helmer, Lombardo should be commended for offering smooth transitions between rehearsals in contempo outfits, performances in period costumes, and the thesps' offstage lives.

In this picture, the filmmakers eschew the traditional hag look of the three witches in favor of three young sirens, who seduce Macbeth/William. But as pleasurable as these sequences are for the eyes, they also indicate the film's general weakness: Unlike Vanya on 42nd Street, which illuminated Chekhov's masterpiece and brought a new light to it, this modern interpretation simplifies and trivializes Shakespeare. It's not a major revelation for the audience to realize that William is a corrupt and ambitious actor who uses his good looks to seduce female producers and leading ladies, heartlessly dropping them when they are no longer of value to him. Less effective in this rendition is the chorus (Harold Perrineau), which functions as the interpreter of events, both in the play and in the actors' lives.

It's a known fact in the theater annals that prior productions of Macbeth have been plagued by “the curse of the Scottish play.” In this movie, superstitions run so deep that actors will not even utter the word “Macbeth.” It's to the helmer's credit, that Macbeth in Manhattan takes full advantage of the play's cursed reputation–the curse almost operates as a distinct character in the text.

With the exception of Glover as the ferocious ringmaster, none of the actors has the stature called for by Shakespeare's timeless play, and all of them are much more convincing in their everyday clothes than in their period costumes. Tech credits are good, particularly Leland Krane's clean lensing and Donna Stern's sharp editing, which makes the transitions between the film's multi layers as fluent as possible.

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