"The Room" Hits the Stage

theroom-play1

Tommy Wiseau walked onstage with a water bottle in hand. He fumbled his lines, as if he’d completely forgotten how to say, “I did not hit her, it’s not true, it’s bullshit, I did not hit her! I did nooot—Oh hi, Mark.” Then he chucked the water bottle down. The audience cheered. He picked it back up, yelled, “I did nooot!” and threw it a second time, causing the bottle to bounce far across the stage. The audience cheered louder. Egged on by the euphoria of acceptance, Wiseau went over to the other side of the stage, picked up the bottle again, sobbed like a child, and threw it as hard as he could. Water sprayed everywhere as the bottle ricocheted off the stage and towards the front row. It missed me by inches and slapped my ladyfriend in the knee, causing her to spill her beer.

It was the single worst play I have ever seen, and it was fantastic.

A renaissance man, Wiseau wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Room, which in the past eight years has become a frenzied cult phenomenon that rivals The Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with its own list of callbacks and screening traditions. This past weekend, the American Film Institute decided to show the cultural significance of this film by hosting two nights of retrospective screenings at their AFI Silver theater in Silver Spring, MD (basically Washington, DC for the geographically apathetic).

Somehow, this led to the decision to complement those screenings with live script readings by Tommy Wiseau (Johnny) and Greg Sestero (Mark). That is what we all paid to see on Saturday, but that is not what we saw.

theroom-play2Just minutes before the sold out reading was supposed to start, we were informed that there had been a change in plans and Tommy Wiseau would like to do a full stage play with props, costumes and a whole cast of local actors instead. This immediately presented a problem. What makes The Room so special is how believable it is as a genuinely bad movie. Even if Wiseau one day reveals that it was all a put-on, it wouldn’t matter. You can watch The Room and see how someone intended it as a serious dramatic film. Nothing in it winks at the camera or stray too over-the-top to be self-aware, but it’s stitched together by the impression that all these people in it were just humoring Wiseau’s absurd vision of human relationships. Trying to recreate that ingenuity with actors who know that they’re performing to a crowd of people privy to the joke is impossible.

Luckily, the play was a disaster on its own merit. Instead of a performance of a trainwreck, we just got a trainwreck; which, strangely, made it the most brilliant screen-to-stage adaptations ever. Move over, Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark.

I like to think that the only reason this play came together was because the airline lost the luggage Wiseau kept the script in—the actors certainly didn’t follow it—though that wouldn’t explain the wardrobe. Wiseau was the only actor to have costume changes in the play, and he apparently brought with him all the outfits he wore in the movie. The play took place in a movie theater, so for the backdrop, they had blurry stills captured from a paused DVD of the movie projected onto the screen.

Wiseau held auditions the day before, and must have cast actors by how much of The Room they can quote. Some of the players stuck to repeating lines from the movie, while others realized how futile the effort was when the stars themselves weren’t doing that. Meanwhile, the savvier audience would shout corrections at misquoted lines and boo at attempts of improv. The play also shuffled some the scenes out of order by mistake (I hope), making the plot even more incomprehensible than before. Then again, maybe only people like me, who have seen the movie more times than they care to count or admit, would be able to tell the difference.

(The following contains spoilers for The Room.)

theroom-play3Most bizarre was the addition of a new character, an upstairs neighbor who would later become the seductive lover of Lisa’s breast cancer-ridden mother. His existence was hinted early in the play, when Johnny randomly started complaining about the noisy neighbor upstairs who wouldn’t shut up. Not knowing what the hell he’s talking about, this just seemed like a rant out of left field; but a few scenes later, a grinning African-American man in a beret darted onto the stage, greeted as Travis by the other characters, and started singing R&B love songs.

As the play went on, the fourth wall came down as if the ghost of Ronald Reagan himself was pawing at it. As the audience got more heated in yelling criticisms at the actors, the actors started to acknowledge them more. The best example of this was at the end of the rooftop scene when Peter asked for a hit of Mark’s joint after Mark tried to kill him. This didn’t happen in the movie, and lo, the audience doth protest, including myself. “Out of character!” I yelled out at "Peter." He turned to us and shrugged, “Hey, I almost got thrown off a roof, okay?”

Greg Sestero threw bones at the audience the most. He was committed to making it obvious that he’d rather end up in a hospital on Guerrero Street than reprise the role of Mark, by constantly MST3K-ing his own lines and flashing a too-hip-to-be-there smirk (yet he was there). The most overt display of this occurred during the altercation between Chris-R and Denny. After Mark grabbed the gun away from Chris-R, Sestero broke character by pointing the gun to his own head and making a “Can you believe I’m doing this shit?” face when Wiseau wasn’t looking. He’d rather be one of the fans, and he largely succeeded. The fans laughed at his antics and comments. “I’m dating this girl, man,” he said, as Mark. “She’s the most beautiful girl in the world. She also has a fucked up neck.”

I admit it’s disappointing, since Mark has my favorite lines in the movie, and Sestero didn’t care enough to say many of them. In the movie, after Johnny commits suicide, Mark has a change of heart and gives Lisa the greatest brush off ever recorded: “As far as I’m concerned, you can drop off the Earth. That’s a promise!” In the stage version, Johnny snuffed himself not with a shot to the head, but by wrapping his own head in a plastic bag—which is freaking hilarious. When Lisa asked Mark if he’s still hers, Sestero just ignored her and silently tightened the plastic bag around Johnny’s neck.

“Believe it or not, we did not have rehearsal for this,” Wiseau told us after the play. I believed him.

theroom-play4There’s something fleetingly sad in seeing the resignation in Wiseau as he remembered his own catchphrases from the film, and the obligation to say them dawned on him. It didn’t always happen. He’d remember the easy stuff, like “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” and “Anyway, how is your sex life?” but not the ones that require more build up. In his first scene, where Johnny is supposed to shoo Denny away to get some private sexy time with Lisa, Wiseau had to be reminded of his own nonsensical writing. The exchange between Johnny and Denny went something like this:

“Denny, you have to go. Two is better than three.”
“You mean, 'Two is great but three is a crowd.'”
“Yes, 'Two is better than three.' Remember what I told you?”
“Two is great but three is a crowd?”
“That’s right.”

In hindsight, it takes quite the brass set for someone to charge money for something, abruptly replace what’s promised with something else, and then wing the entire thing. At the time, though, I definitely didn’t care, and no one else seemed to, either. AFI Silver has beer on tap at the concession stand, so people were lubed up appropriately. It was an inimitable evening of slam theater, filled with uncontrollable laughter and generous applause.

I couldn’t decide as I was watching him if Wiseau was genuinely having fun or if he felt like a performer trapped in his own status. I actually felt flush with embarrassment as I watched him writhe around on the stage rubbing a red dress on his crotch, surrendering to the gladiatorial bloodlust of the audience’s chants: “Fuck the dress! Fuck the dress!

And yet, hearing him talk, you get the impression that perhaps he just doesn’t care anymore about what he or The Room is to those people. As he put it, “you can laugh or you can cry,” as long as you have a good time and remember to love each other—his message for a better world that he believes is the underlying moral of The Room. He is an optimistic and cordial guy, very nice and patient to his legion of fans, most of whom became his fans in the first place to make fun of him. It’s hard to see who’s exploiting who, when those fans form long lines to get his autograph and buy his merchandise.

Wiseau and Sestero are heading up to New York next, to attend a midnight screening of the film at Manhattan’s Ziegfield Theater on Saturday, June 18th. But Wiseau also hopes to take the stage version of The Room across the country, eventually producing it large-scale on Broadway and realizing his dream of becoming the new Tennessee Williams, as The Room’s original publicity materials claimed to be. He has also written an 800-page novelization of The Room (publisher TBA) that among other things will delve deeper into the mysterious new character Travis’ subplot.

Tommy Wiseau is not fed up with this world yet.

Jun
13
2011
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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