Banter about sex, football, Sinatra versus Mathis and roast beef made the 1982 movie Diner one of the most influential of its generation. Baltimore native son Barry Levinson focused his author’s lens on six men in their early 20s who spend every night chewing the fat, drinking coffee and eating gravy-smothered fries in a diner that was reminiscent of the Hilltop Diner, where he spent his youth.
What did they talk about? Nothing. And everything.
Thirty-two years after the movie debuted – and made stars out of newcomers Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke – Levinson has returned to his Baltimore roots to remake his film as a musical, with Broadway aspirations. The world-premiere production, featuring music and lyrics by nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow, on Signature Theatre’s MAX stage in Arlington runs through Jan. 25. All performances are sold-out.
Levinson’s film, set during the last week of 1959, had a natural, off-the-cuff quality, the riffs, arguments and dilemmas had a poetic mundanity to them, and a toe-tapping soundtrack of 1950s pop music added rhythmic force to the loose character-driven vignettes.
One of the uncredited stars was Levinson’s beloved hometown, Baltimore, and the aluminum-sided diner with its vinyl banquettes and Formica table tops. And that diner with its red fluorescent sign aglow, recreated at Signature by designer Derek McLane and adapter James Kronzer, provides the homey environment that serves as the central gathering spot for Levinson’s unforgettable collection of characters – Boogie, Modell, Eddie, Shrevie, Fenwick and Billy.
These lifelong friends teeter on the cusp of adulthood, not quite ready to maneuver in the adult world, but far enough from high school and frat-house shenanigans that the women and older adults in their lives express dismay and exasperation at their childish hijinks.
Levinson’s stage adaptation expands the scope and scale of his meandering, gritty film by bringing in women’s voices. (In the original film, for example, we never see Eddie’s fiancee Elyse’s face, even though she plays a central role in a plot line: she has to pass a Colts football test before Eddie will agree to go through with his impending New Year’s Eve wedding.)
Beyond expanding the diner boys’ club, Levinson also added an older Boogie (John Schiappa), who frames the action as a flashback – a theatrical device that adds little to the show. He serve as an unnecessary moral commentator on the ’50s era and the adolescent actions of the tight-knit Baltimore boys. Schiappa also plays Boogie’s patron saint of sorts for gambling debts, Bagel (whenever he doffs a hat). As older Boogie, he saps the off-the-cuff conversations (“You gonna eat that sandwich?”) of their vitality and spunk. We know 1959 was the beginning of the end, but the 1960s didn’t really come into full blossom until after the Kennedy assassination and the start of the Vietnam War. The narrator pushes too much too soon.
Crow’s score draws from a pastiche of 1950s styles: early roots rock ’n roll, R&B, harmonic girl-and-boy groups, doo wop and ballads. Her songs work best in the second act, where they are more intimate and story-driven – a Crow trademark in her pop career. The larger ensemble numbers are dutiful but not memorable and without Kathleen Marshall’s impeccable musical staging and direction, the musical would really drag. Marshall, a Broadway veteran who directed Anything Goes, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Grease, Follies and a slew of other mid-20th century and more contemporary musicals, animates the compact Signature stage with plenty of physicality and a few modest dance numbers.
There’s the early upbeat number “Working on a Brand New Groove,” at the Christmas party, and the cautionary “Don’t Give It All Away” to accompany the infamous movie theater scene with Boogie making good on a bet with his girl and a trick box of popcorn. Later, in Act 2, the battle of the sexes is highlighted again in “The Games We Play” for all the boys plus Elyse, “Every Man Needs a Woman” and the burlesque “Gotta Lotta Woman.”
The strong ensemble cast features Bryan Frenkart as the motor-mouth Modell; Adam Kantor as football-obsessed, groom-to-be Josh Grisetti, the only married one of the group; Matthew James Thomas as trust-fund layabout Fenwick; and Aaron Finley as MBA candidate Billy, whose sometime girlfriend is pregnant and doesn’t want to marry. And humanizing this boys club are Tess Soltau as Elyse; Erika Henningsen as unhappy newlywed Beth; and Whitney Bashor as career-hungry Barbara.
Levinson’s Diner – on screen or stage – is a swan song to his beloved hometown. Capturing a generation of lost boy-men, who never realized their failure to launch, the acclaimed director (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Tin Men, And Justice for All as well as television’s Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz) draws on his specific memories of a world where he recalled that very nearly everyone was Jewish. He reveals a measure of universality that can bridge culture, religion and the lost decades of his youth in Baltimore, where he attended Forest Park High School – where other notable Jewish grads include the Tulkoff horseradish queen and Mama Cass Elliot (Ellen Cohen).
While Levinson’s script isn’t replete with Jewish themes and ideas, save for the closing scene depicting Eddie and Elyse’s wedding, he has marinated his characters and their foibles with a particularly Jewish ta’am (flavor). Their verbal repartee, interactions, inflections and speech patterns – though, alas, without the great Bawlmar accent – feel quintessentially Jewish.
Levinson broke new ground in introducing a character-driven film that eschewed plot and a dramatic arc. Instead the loosely connected vignettes feel like real-life moments that play out in coffee shops, basements and kitchens every day. It is a show about nothing. And that nothing paved the way for Seinfeld, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Judd Apatow franchise of bromance movies.
As a musical, Diner is not yet a satisfying meal. Levinson’s script needs more fine-tuning to serve up these characters and their as-yet unsettled lives as something more natural, more believable, more loveable, funnier. The white tablecloth of Broadway might beckon, but Levinson would do well if Diner keeps its greasy spoon and gravy fries roots intact.