From play to movie back to play, Jack Goes Boating proves its stamina

It’s quite a challenge to do play that’s been made into a movie. Everyone’s going to make comparisons, many of them unfair. Good example: Kurt Vonnegut – great novelist, lousy playwright.

Fortunately for the cast of Jack Goes Boating – opening Thursday at the Varscona Theatre – the 2010 movie of the same name isn’t quite as well known as, say, A Few Good Men, the recent Citadel Theatre production whose poor actors were identified as the “Jack Nicholson character” and “the Demi Moore character” and so on. Plus there was that huge pop culture tagline hanging over everybody’s heads: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Jack Goes Boating, the movie, starring and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, also started life as a play, was considered “too slow” by Hollywood rom-com standards, didn’t get many glowing reviews and never enjoyed wide release. The original 2007 play by Robert Glaudini (which starred Hoffman at the New York premiere) seemed to fare better, critic-wise – which of course is one of the reasons it was made into a film.

Kelly Reay, director of the Edmonton production, says he’s seen the film, though he doubts his cast has. Or wants to.

“I know a lot of actors don’t want to watch a film of a play because they don’t want it to influence their choices, either deliberately or unconsciously,” he says. “If you see Philip Seymour Hoffman doing something special, you can’t help but let that creep into your own performance. In this case, we wanted to make this our own production and wanted to be influenced by the film as little as possible.”

Jack Goes Boating tells the tale of the titular shy limo driver (Garett Ross) who gets set up with a young woman (Shawna Burnett) by his happily married friends (Mabelle Carvajal and Frank Zotter), who turn out to be not so happily married after all. Meanwhile, Jack needs to learn how to swim so he can take his new date along with the title of the play. Romantic comedy ensues. Long montages seen in the film are difficult to replicate on stage, Reay says, “so the challenge is to make it flow, how to accommodate this cinematically written play while maintaining the pace and the drive and the energy.”

It turns out that Reay has directed two other plays that had been made into movies. Just a coincidence, he says. He did Trainspotting, which was a novel before it was a movie that was adapted for the stage; and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which was a stage musical before it was a film. In both cases, the pre-marketed material helped “put bums in seats,” as the saying goes. The same, to perhaps a lesser extent, is hoped for Jack Goes Boating, though Reay says he doesn’t want to make a habit of this sort of thing.

“It’s a fine line,” he says. “As theatre programmers, we don’t want to rely on thinking what movies we can put on stage. It’s a very non-artistic approach. But at the same time, you have to make money to keep your business afloat. Maybe you do one show that’s a great play and a great experience for the audience, which also happened to be a movie, so you can do something else in the season that’s off the track, and make money on those blockbusters.”

Once again: Jack Goes Boating wasn’t a blockbuster. But at least it allowed Philip Seymour Hoffman his first chance to direct, and was appreciated as what Reay says is “deliberately slower paced” but “very funny film.” And of course it also helped renew interest in what a lot of people consider a very good play. It’s the classic full circle at work.

Jack Goes Boating plays through Nov. 25. Tickets here.