“Don’t you have an unuttered thought?” asks Mark, a semi-retired film critic, of Thomas, a famous producer and an old friend of his, in “The Cleopatra Club,” a compelling play that currently is being presented at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood.
It’s a rhetorical question, but the answer would seem to be no. Thomas has just finished an enraged harangue that basically summed up the decline of the film industry in the late 20th century.
“I said to him, ‘Is that what you want, Allan, to make films for 14-year-olds?,’ ” Thomas remembers telling his former producing partner.
“ ‘Not any fourteen year-olds,’ ” he said. “ ‘Dumb 14-year-olds.’ ”
In this 1995 play, a rare theatrical project for Paul Schrader (who wrote “Taxi Driver” and co-wrote “Raging Bull,” among his many other screenwriting and film directing credits), Thomas (played here by Mike Marcou) and Mark (played by Michael Gardiner) meet at the Cairo Film Festival, where Thomas is being honored and Mark is heading the jury.
In the first act, they reminisce, and vent about the indignities of their respective professions. Mark, who has fallen on hard times financially, expresses an interest in helping Thomas write his memoirs. A man named Allan, who had had a brief affair with Mark before becoming Thomas’ professional partner — and dying of “The Virus,” as Thomas calls AIDS — looms large in both of their memories.
Then, in most of the play’s tense second act, the story takes a left turn. Mark and Thomas are interrogated, separately, about a crime they really don’t know much about, by a police officer, Col. Ziadeh (played by Luke Shibbo).
“The Cleopatra Club” has three great roles. Mark is funny and self-deprecating, Thomas is a bit of a fallen diva: They’re both eager to share their stories and ideas with each other, and do so with theatrical flair. But Shibbo steals the show as Ziadeh, who takes his beleaguered interrogation subjects (interviewed in the wee hours of the morning) on a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions. Sometimes he’s charming and polite; sometimes he turns into an intimidating monster. At all times, though, he’s utterly in control and one step ahead of Thomas and Mark.
He clearly has some ulterior motive and, as in any crime story, it’s fun to try to pick up the clues and put together the bigger picture (which eventually does becomes clear).
Two other actors, Arthur Gregory Pugh and Isabel Bertelsen, play a variety of smaller roles that help move the story along but don’t have much meat to them, and Shibbo also appears as a waiter in Act 1.
Director Matt Okin and assistant director Ilana Schimmel help give the production a taut energy and underscore Schrader’s dark humor in a way that, one suspects, may have been influenced by Schrader’s movies themselves.
The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood will present “The Cleopatra Club” through April 10. Visit blackboxpac.com.
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