Off-Broadway Review: LIKE THEY DO IN THE MOVIES (Laurence Fishburne at PAC/NYC)

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by Paola Bellu on March 21, 2024

in Theater-New York


Who doesn’t want to see Laurence Fishburne in a solo play he describes as “The stories and lies people have told me. And that I have told myself”? The theater at PAC/NYC, part of the World Trade Center complex, was packed with fans last night, and it was just a preview (the show officially opens today, March 21). Fishburne is also the playwright of Like They Do in the Movies, directed by Leonard Foglia, who collaborated with him on another solo show, Thurgood.

New York is a significant part of this autobiographical story, one that shows how he became the articulate, complicated, serious actor of The Matrix films and so much more. The prologue and finale used to frame his stories are part of the same cogent confessional monologue about his relationship with his narcissistic mother Hattie and semi-absent father Big Fish. Appearing in a black sequin caftan, Fishburne graciously introduces us to the scared child who, at his mother’s urging, is forced at the age of ten to go on auditions until he finds out, a few years later, that acting was truly his vocation. We are ready and eager to listen; he throws a series of personal emotional bombs, promises more, we wait.

The scene changes and we are in a New York bar where Fishburne plays a stereotypical Italian American who is telling us a funny anecdote completely unrelated to the intriguing biographical beginning. Well-acted but irrelevant, it makes us wish for a change back to the sequin caftan, to Hattie and Big Fish, but then we get another story. Now, a New Orleans lawyer recounts the horrific effects of Hurricane Katrina. It is a compelling performance about an unforgettable tragedy, but these and ensuing vignettes are incongruous, even if all the main characters are talking directly to him, Larry.

One of the best short stories, probably because he is giving us more of a direct reference to his life, is set in front of a projected movie trailer  with the actor’s name on the door. Fishburne is playing one of his bodyguards who is chatting with the actor outside the trailer, telling him juicy bits of his private life while making sure none of the fans get close to him. Masterfully portrayed, the bodyguard is a hilarious tough guy  who knits while barking at the most audacious fans.

From an actor who, at 14, worked for two years with Coppola and a superstar cast filming Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, you would expect a lot more in terms of anecdotes, but the next vignettes, like the others, seem randomly pulled from a memory basket; you can’t even call them digressions. Fishburne succeeds in humanizing characters who might seem grotesque, including a manic homeless squeegee guy and an upscale American pimp living in Australia. The creative team for the production — scenic designer Neil Patel, lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, sound designer Justin Ellington, and production designer Elaine J. McCarthy — frames the stories in a discreet, efficient way without special effect interference.

Finally, back in the caftan, a grinning Fishburne returns to his past to inform why he stopped seeing his mother for years. Her abuse, manipulation, need for admiration, lack of empathy, her expectation of favorable treatment at all times to an unreasonable degree, made their relationship toxic. Years later, when his parents were seriously sick, he was there for both of them, finally bonding with his dying father and forgiving his mother.

It’s a gracious finale that comes 100 minutes after the end of the prologue. Too many unrelated stories have taken the momentum away and the thread is broken, so the last 20 minutes don’t reach the pathos of the beginning. Yet despite its evident flaws and length, Like They Do in the Movies is an engaging production by a great actor, a must-see for Fishburne fans.

photos by Joan Marcus

Like They Do in the Movies
Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC), 251 Fulton Street
ends on March 31, 2024
for tickets, visit PAC/NYC

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