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by Aaron West

"Almost the equivalent of bringing a camera to a play."
3 stars

Only a handful of directors have adapted their own material from the stage to the screen; even fewer have directed at both levels, even fewer have done so for their first feature film, and absolutely none (that I know of), have done so using the same theater cast. Lawrence Levine has taken such a leap, but unlike say Mike Leigh, David Mamet or Neil Labute, and perhaps out of necessity, Levine has undertaken the project in the truly independent sense.

Territory, also Levine’s first stage play, had a lengthy off-Broadway run and received several glowing reviews from esteemed critics. Most of the praise was directed towards the acting and the writing, so Levine took those elements and added a camera. The feature film version contains the same acting trio, the same “screenplay,” and a reasonably similar set – that is, a real apartment rather than a temporarily constructed one.

Late at night, after a particularly nauseating party, Ben & Maya find themselves a bit restless in their apartment. Ben seems to be in a bad mood, while Maya remains somewhat frisky and playful. They decide to make pork chops when, completely out of the blue, an unexpected visitor pays a visit. James, Ben’s former college roommate has not been seen in 4 years. Right away, he makes himself comfortable, attempts to play catch-up with his old buddies, reliving old memories along the way, pleasant or unpleasant. The couple do their best to accommodate him, but their mixed feelings about his presence are apparent, if not spoken. A mostly uncomfortable social experience ensues, with plenty of bitter feelings, power struggles, and even a slam dance to make things interesting.

The greatest challenge with adapting a play is to translate it to the medium. Even though the writing process is similar, the stage and movie mediums are completely different, and appeal to different types of audiences. Adaptations work best when they are not word-for-word, scene-for-scene. Often they require a great deal of creativity. A good example of this would be Mike Nichols’ Closer from last year, where he used online chatting as a plot mechanism. Obviously this could not have been done on the stage, but it helped speed the narrative within the shorter attention span in cineplexes. Territory, an ultra-low budget indie, shares few of the same resources that Nichols had at his disposal, but that does not excuse it from not using creative narrative tricks to reel the viewer in. The first hour or so does, in fact, seem like a filmed stage play. The original version could have been manipulated to remove the play from the movie. For instance, I am not sure using one location was in its best interest. Even if the three actors left the apartment for something to eat, coffee maybe, there would have at least been some visual variety.

Speaking of Closer, Nichols also had seasoned, film actors to work with, who are quite able to liven up dialog without speaking loudly or otherwise accentuating what they are saying as a stage actor would. An independent director does not have a Julia Roberts or a Clive Owen at his disposal, so it is unfair to measure him by the same bar. The acting in Territory, as performed by the same stage trio, lacks that natural feel. It often feels forced and over-acted. That’s not saying the acting is poor. Quite the opposite, really. It’s just somewhat different, with less polish, than what is usually seen on screen. It takes some time to adjust, and not until the third act do these distractions fade and the actors disappear into their characters. Maybe not so ironically, these are also most intensely emotional scenes, and when the movie is at its best.

As a result of those flaws, Territory is, in a sense, similar to the process of surfing. While the surfer is wading out to sea, climbing over the passing waves and waiting patiently, he’s not yet having a great time. But that patience and perseverance pays off once he encounters the perfect wave, and the rest of the ride is satisfying in several ways. Once the viewer gets over the awkward performance style and situations in Territory, and is able to wrap his mind around the single setting, the characters do the rest and deliver an exhilarating ending.

The off-Broadway version is undoubtedly the more appropriate medium for this story, and if given a choice, I would rather see it there. Still, I cannot help but applaud Levine for trying something a little different. His characters are extraordinarily ordinary, and his tightly wound screenplay reveals their (and our) brightest and darkest sides at various times. Great writing should not be restricted to a certain medium, and this is exactly the type of story that works so well as independent film – like Closer, The Shape of Things and Tape. His first outing may not be a masterpiece, but I look forward to what he will deliver next.

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originally posted: 08/05/05 11:32:09
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Directed by
  Lawrence Levine

Written by
  Lawrence Levine

  Grant Varjas
  John B. Good
  Amanda Gruss

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