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Heart of Dark Humor 

Oh! The humor, the humor.

You may have seen Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr in the original A Place in the Sun (1951). Or you may have read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925) on which the movie was based. But even if you haven't, the moment George Eastman (Jack Long) tells Alice (Dorian Rush) that they're both in the same boat " meaning they both come from humble backgrounds and work for a living " everyone knows where this tragicamp comedy is going. Out on the lake, and Alice isn't coming back. In case you don't pick up on it, Running with Scissors zooms in the spotlight on Alice's stuck-in-the-headlights horror and cues the appropriate crescendo of foreshadowing notes.

Running with Scissors picked doubly rich material for this outrageously fun summer production. Dreiser's novel was based on actual events that dominated newspaper headlines in a tabloid way back in 1906. In real life, Chester Gillette got his fellow factory worker Grace Brown pregnant, but tried to avoid marrying her in favor of running around with other women. Dreiser lifted the story and added a socialite as a singular other love interest. Then Paramount Pictures adapted it, casting Clift as Long, Elizabeth Taylor as the socialite, and Winters as the girl with a problem. It's a classic film, but also odd in the way that the glamour of its principals overshadow the brute horribleness of Gillette/George Eastman's scheme (which occupied Dreiser for more than 800 pages). Scissors' cross-dressed production finds many of its best laughs in the story's darkest moments. Many of the rest come from Peterson's larger than life Elizabeth Taylor as socialite Angela Vickers. The only thing that keeps her from outright stealing the show is a host of great comedic performances by the rest of the cast.

The play begins as George Eastman travels to the hometown of the richer branch of his family. Led by boozy/raunchy patriarch Mr. Eastman (Bob Edes Jr.), the family does the first several scenes riotously through clenched teeth and fake smiles. They only unclench long enough to refill drinks and chatter on about their rigorous social engagements. George is given a job in a factory, where he meets Alice (Rush), and though both are discouraged from fraternizing with fellow employees, the sweet bird of illicit co-worker rutting blesses their acquaintance.

Besides the fact that he's breaking the rules, Eastman doesn't want his upper-class family to know he's sleeping with a common laborer. Enter Vickers and the plot thickens, so to speak. When not out on the lake waterskiing " in one of many goofy video backdrop-enhanced vignettes " she drinks hard and wonders when she'll meet a suitable man. Somehow, a young Eastman seems to fit the bill.

Alice's pleasant rendezvous with George " and months " are now numbered. He has acquired a taste for the high life and she sours it. He proposes a weekend getaway at a lodge by the lake to try to break the news to her.

The story is full of delicious irony. The family would never approve of killing Alice, but in the campy exaggeration of their social-class disdain, it's hard to imagine an indignity they wouldn't let her suffer. There's no member of the family whose immediate desire for a drink doesn't far outweigh the problems of anyone in their presence. The Running with Scissors crew chose their material well.

The story is tight, and there are many great performances, including in bit roles. Rush plays up Alice as a pathetic and self-aware victim. Edes is funny throughout, especially as the gruff and crusty courtroom lawyer Marlowe (played by Raymond Burr in the film). Brad Caldwell is hilarious as George's overly religious mother, Vicker's mother, George's lawyer and Marlowe's lovely assistant. The company's signature big wigs are everywhere. There's no opportunity lost for cross-dressing or giving a character a pronounced swish.

Smart sets and props help the crew make excellent use of Le Chat's compact stage. It's also a good atmosphere for so many larger-than-life characters. Several people in the audience remarked that they'll never see the movie the same way again, and it's hard to disagree.

click to enlarge In A Place in the Sun, George Eastman is torn between two women.
  • In A Place in the Sun, George Eastman is torn between two women.
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