Probably the strangest theater news this year was the announcement that the terminally outrageous British filmmaker Ken Russell would be making his New York theatrical debut with a thriller called Mindgame. Chiefly known for what Pauline Kael called his “porno biographies” of famous dead composers, Russell made his most decisive impact in the 1970’s with a series of spectacularly tasteless movies, ranging from the half-way serious religious hysteria of The Devils (1971) to the relentless musical assaults of Tommy (1975). Kael and several others took him to task for his often unreflective and always-vulgar explorations of his own fantasies, most of which seemed to revolve around an obsession with the phallus. At this point, however, it’s easy to look at Russell’s nothing-if-not-distinctive work with a certain guilty pleasure fondness, especially his hilarious Crimes of Passion (1984), which pits damaged, fierce streetwalker Kathleen Turner against a rampaging preacher played by a thoroughly demented Anthony Perkins. There are scenes between Turner and Perkins in that film that are so off-the-wall that they stand as some of the nastiest, funniest stand-offs in any movie; who can forget the moment when Perkins stops menacing Turner long enough to belt out a crazed version of “Get Happy” at the piano, and, better yet, her completely bewildered reaction?
Downstairs at the Soho Playhouse, where Mindgame is running, the filthy auteur himself was tottling around in red drawers that set off his shock of snow-white hair; he looked like a dirty old man Santa Claus, and it’s hard not to feel a liking for any man who insists on cadging heaping plastic glasses of Rene Junot wine before and even during the performance itself. The play? Well, it’s one of those stage chillers that used to be popular years ago, with “twists and turns” that any ten-year old child could predict five minutes after the plot gets underway. The Soho Playhouse has a curious feeling of miniaturization, a trick of perspective that makes the red curtain look like it was made for a puppet show. When that curtain rises, on what has to be the most exuberantly ugly stage set I have ever seen, the furniture also seems tiny and the space cramped, so much so that when the star, lanky Keith Carradine, entered, I wondered how he was going to sit down at what looked like a desk for a toddler. The playbill claims that the scenic design, such as it is, was created by someone named Beowulf Boritt, and if that’s his real name, then I’m Marie of Romania.
Carradine does a passable imitation of Rex Harrison as an eminent psychotherapist who may be a killer, who may be a doctor, etc. etc. He spends most of his time pouncing on words whenever he isn’t pouncing on his co-star, Lee Godart, who plays a mystery writer. They rattle off reams of expository dialogue and seem to be having fun with the cheesy play, and the audience tries to have fun with them, but there comes a certain point when cringing at the “macabre” developments drowns the laughter out. It is only when Kathleen McNenny enters in a white rubber nurse’s uniform that the hand of the ever-unholy Ken can be felt. The plot of Mindgame is full of holes, but it is an amusing, if overlong experience. If nothing else, it will make you want to take in some Russell films, starting with Women in Love (1970) and ending, most appropriately, with Whore (1991), in which the blatant Theresa Russell (no relation) harangues the camera with scatological monologues.