John Cassevetes in Vienna


When maverick American actor and film-maker John Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 he left behind a number of unproduced works. These included a novel, more than 40 screenplays, and three plays: “Sweet Talk”, “Entrances and Exits” and—his last project—“Begin the Beguine”.

That final play takes its title from a 1934 song by Cole Porter that Cassavetes apparently loved. He wrote it with two actors in mind: Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, his co-stars in “Husbands”, a film that he also wrote and directed. He continued to work on “Begin the Beguine” even as his health worsened, and the project progressed to the point of several filmed readings with Falk and Gazzarra at Cassavetes’s home. But, feeling that the director was in no condition to realise the project, Falk and Gazarra ended their involvement.

Finally, more than 25 years after its conception, and with astonishingly little fanfare, “Begin the Beguine” has seen the light of day in the most unexpected of places. In a co-production by Belgium’s Needcompany and Vienna’s Burgtheater, the play had its premiere recently, in a new German translation, at the Akademietheater in Vienna. Jan Lauwers, the director, simply contacted the estate and acquired the rights.

Like “Husbands”, “Begin the Beguine” brings its audiences into uncomfortably close proximity to men behaving badly. In the Falk and Gazzara roles, Falk Rockstroh and Oliver Stokovski play Gito Spaiano and Morris Wine, two smartly dressed but weary old men settling in for a long stay at a beachfront apartment. Sung-Im Her and Inge Van Bruystegem, speaking their lines mostly in the original English, play the various women pulled into the men’s strange, destructive orbit. They have been hired from an escort agency to provide company, conversation and some illusion of intimacy.

If there was any tendency to treat this long-lost Cassavetes text with too much tiptoeing reverence, Mr Lauwers does not show it. Blurring the boundary between reality and artifice, the director has his actresses make themselves up and change outfits—they are more often undressed than dressed—on stage in full view of the audience. There’s the bilingualism (alienating not only non-English speakers in the audience, but also Rockstroh and Stokovski themselves), jarringly contemporary music, mask-wearing and a hypnotic dance sequence in which the stage lighting rig descends on the actors like a metal cage.

Most strikingly of all, Mr Lauwers keeps the performers—in and out of character, and in their varying stages of undress—under surveillance, as a crew member roves around armed with a camera, projecting voyeuristic but often beautiful images onto a screen above the stage. The effect is even more invasive than Cassavetes’s famously probing camera, exposing not just the characters but the performers themselves.

It’s undeniably bold, and a necessary injection of life for a script that on the page is fairly plotless, unwieldy and heavy with meandering discourse (“I don’t want love. I don’t trust it. It’s like a ghost. It’s haunting. Mental masturbation. Stupidity. Pain. Sickness. Commitment. Forget it.” This comes about two minutes into the play.)

With its theme of raw, broken masculinity, it is clear that Cassevetes intended “Begin the Beguine” as a companion piece to “Husbands”—even a post-middle-age continuation of it. The play naturally lacks the roving kinetic energy of the film, taking place as it does entirely in a living room, but both play and film are really about the turbulence of the characters’ inner lives. The play ups the existential ante too: where “Husbands” was about “life, death and freedom” (as its title card has it), there’s no mistaking what was particularly on Cassavetes’s mind as he worked on “Begin the Beguine”. This is the main reason why, unfocused as it is, this last work is at times an almost unbearably poignant memento of a great artistic legacy.

“There’s nothing to be alarmed about but my life seems to be over,” says Gito, late in the play. “I don’t want to embellish my last moments with meaningless phrases … I don’t want to be vulgar but I’m past the experimental stage.”

This review originally appeared in the Economist in January 2015.

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