Charlie Kaufman -- who has written the screenplays for such merrily mind-bending films as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” -- isn’t so much a trickster as a hide-and-seek artist.
His films, however odd their premise may seem at first, are never about getting lost but about being found. They are not mysteries but anti-mysteries. The pleasure they are meant to give is in their explanations. You don’t get fleeting clues but fleets of clues. You leave the theater not wondering but knowing. Kaufman’s the comic anti-Kafka for a Kafkaesque age.
His wit once more runs rampant in Kaufman’s intriguing “Theater of the New Ear,” which opened the UCLA Live season Wednesday night at Royce Hall. The show consists of two “original sound plays set to live music by Carter Burwell.”
Film stars -- Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Meryl Streep, David Thewlis -- seated on stools, casually dressed, read radio playlets from scripts. Marko Costanzo, a foley artist, creates sound effects, which is a show in its own right. Burwell conducts an excellent chamber ensemble, Parabola, on stage as well.
Kaufman did not write both plays. Except he did. When this show was first presented in New York in April, Kaufman’s “Hope Leaves the Theater” was paired with a play by Ethan and Joel Coen, whose films Burwell regularly scores, as he does those written by Kaufman. But since the Coen brothers’ cast wasn’t available for the Royce dates, a new play, “Anomalisa,” was written by Francis Fregoli for the occasion. Fregoli is “an established writer, who wishes to remain anonymous,” according to the program note. Maybe I’m wrong, but however much Kaufman likes to hide, he likes even more to be found.
In “Anomalisa,” Thewlis is a self-help author who arrives in Cincinnati to give a speech. He has an affair with Lisa (Leigh), whom he meets in the hotel. They have hot sex, all the while seated on opposite sides of the stage. Noonan is between them, and he is everyone from the taxi driver, to the television set, to the hotel personnel, to Lisa’s roommate.
The radio play format is marvelous. Everything is revealed, yet the magic of theater is maintained. Still, Kaufman’s tricksterisms can be trying. He toys with reality, but the safety net is huge. The most imaginative scene, in which the hotel staff turns into a single smothering love machine, turns out to be only a dream. But Thewlis’ existential angst is real, and that is impressive.
“Hope Leaves the Theater” is a series of amusing exits out of various rabbit holes. The actors are the audience. They make fun of us. The actors are, at first, characters in a play. They make fun of them. They ride an elevator in a medical tower that goes on forever. They make fun of that. They step out of character, and they make fun of themselves.
They make fun of Charlie Kaufman. They make fun of Charlie Kaufman making fun of Charlie Kaufman making fun of them making fun of themselves making fun of us watching them making fun of themselves. They swim in a sea of self-referential asides. Sometimes it gets suffocatingly ironic. But sometimes it doesn’t.
When he can stop looking at himself and looks around, Kaufman has an acute eye and ear. Here Hope Davis is the one with an existential crisis. She sits on stage, but she inhabits the audience. Her cellphone rings. It’s the last straw for Streep, who is meant to be performing on stage. Streep throws her out of the hall. Davis sloshes home on the bus and through the rain. She has computer sex.
Streep would steal the show with her razor-sharp accents, her split-second change of characters, if Dinklage weren’t just as good, if more subtle. The scene in the rain, with perfectly apt noirish music and inspired sound effects, folds the stage into the imagination. We see the actors but we don’t. Then we see them, because they mischievously break the mood.
This is all a wonderful experiment, though one that doesn’t go far enough. For Kaufman, a one-liner is thick taffy to be stretched as far as it will go. He fears fear. A master of rabbit holes he may be, but the direction he takes is always up. And he doesn’t trust music enough.
These plays are billed as music theater. Burwell is a talented composer with a knack for creating atmosphere, and he does that very well here. He also has a wit of his own, with sly parodies of Kenny G and the like. He contributes a subtle and important manipulation of mood, without which the performances would lack a crucial dimension.
But with these cute, undeniably entertaining playlets, Kaufman and Burwell have opened a truly intriguing rabbit hole they take great pains to avoid. To go there would be to use the medium for an exploration of the unknown. It would be to ask questions that matter, rather than to obsessively answer those that don’t.
‘Theater of the New Ear’
Where: Royce Hall, UCLA, 10745 Dickson Plaza, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. today
Price: $38 to $60
Contact: (310) 825-2101
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes