Every once in a great while, a theatrical production plays in New York that is so totally inept that you have to just sit back and marvel. In this stage version of Terms of Endearment, the Larry McMurtry novel that was turned into a hit film in 1983 by James L. Brooks, the short scenes have been so poorly directed and shaped that finally you are left asking some very basic questions.
For instance, how long was this fiasco rehearsed, and just what did everyone do in these rehearsals? Why does it seem like none of the actors were given any direction at all? We cannot know these things right now, but maybe director Michael Parva was so stymied by what he had been given to work with that the only thing that might have saved this production would have been treating the actors as puppets and giving them line readings. If that was the case, Parva seems to have chosen instead to just throw up his hands.
The 1980s teen idol Molly Ringwald has now theoretically matured enough to play the role that Shirley MacLaine won an Oscar for in the 1983 film of this material, but the only thing that these two share, alas, is red hair. Ringwald became a star as a very young woman in John Hughes movies, and she has worked steadily in film, TV, and some theater as an adult. She has a real camera face and presence, but that camera charisma does not translate to the stage here at all.
MacLaine found a dry and very comic way to play the difficult role of Aurora Greenway, a totally selfish matron who has a suffocatingly close relationship to her daughter Emma, who was played in the film by the volatile and mercurial Debra Winger. Ringwald delivers most of her lines in an amateurishly hard and pushed way whereas MacLaine maintained a droll and distracted tone that let all of her laughs land.
As Aurora’s daughter Emma, Hannah Dunne gives no performance whatsoever. She has a doleful face and she just recites her lines in such a disconnected, low-energy way that she makes poor Ringwald look even busier and more lost by comparison. It feels as if an inordinate amount of rehearsal time was spent on two physical moments that Aurora has with the astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jeb Brown) where she accidentally backhands him and he gets his hand stuck in her blouse—both of these incidents seem to have been worked out many times while all other scenes fell by the wayside.
As Emma succumbs to cancer, Ringwald locates some genuine emotions of grief, and she even tries to put over a very old-fashioned theatrical routine in the last scene: a monologue that Aurora delivers to her dead daughter on the telephone. In these moments of sorrow, Ringwald shows that she can act fairly well if given time and focus. As for the rest of this sorry affair, it is best, as Ruth Gordon used to say, to draw the veil.