Seeing John Malkovich

I’ve only liked John Malkovich once, in Being John Malkovich. Presumably playing himself as a narcissistic jerk, he seems to be having a ball, particularly in the scene where he appears as every single character. It’s hard to imagine the guy actually being a narcissistic jerk in reality, because only someone with wit and finesse could turn in such a delightful send-up of himself.

And yet wit and finesse don’t figure into any other Malkovich performances. There’s a logy quality to everything from his monotonous vocal delivery to his leaden-jawed skull and heavy tread. He’s particularly bad at accents, and yet for some reason gets cast in parts that call for them all the time. And I’ve never understood how anyone could prefer him and Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons over Colin Firth and Annette Bening in the nimble, sexy Valmont. Casting Malkovich as a seducer is denying his essence; he’s not a charmer.

But when The Infernal Comedy, a touring stage show that features JM as Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, showed up in Ann Arbor, I figured I’d sign up to usher. To see Malkovich on stage might explain why so many folks continue to view him as one of the better actors of his generation. And any play that cuts back and forth between excerpts from a murderer’s autobiography and Vivaldi songs had to be worth dressing up in my usher clothes and at least catching the first act.

There is but one act, an hour and 45 minutes long, and I left halfway through. It’s an interesting piece, and might have crackled with Christopher Landesman or Ralph Fiennes in the title role. But Malkovich’s Austrian accent was even more erratic than anything he’s done in movies, which makes sense with no chance to retake or loop. The guy is beautifully at home on a stage, and no doubt can carry a show by playwrights I tend to dislike – Miller and Ibsen come to mind. He’s be terrific as one of those doom-laden judges in The Crucible or an overbearing husband to Hedda or Nora. But as a guy who beguiles women to their doom, he’s just not believable.

Of course, I should qualify that with a “to me,” because the audience was guffawing away much of the time. The laughter rang a little false to me, that tinny sound people get when they’re laughing so that the people next to them will hear, loud and clear, that they get the joke and are Big Fat Sophisticates. Then again, I didn’t expect to like it, had my expectations fulfilled, and also sat by someone who I thought was kind of acting like a jerk, so I’m probably being a bit of a snarklepuss. Ah, well.

I am glad to have heard the beautiful and beautifully performed music that illustrates the play, and have to shout out to the sopranos Sophie Klussmann and Claire Megnaghi, as well as the excellent and well-named Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Martin Hasselbock. Hell, I’ll shout out to Malkovich. It’s a cool thing to associate himself with, particularly for a guy who earned his strips in live theatre. You can see it on DVD, and it may actually work quite well as pure audio, because then you don’t have to watch fake bra strangling, which is, honestly, kinda lame as executed here. In any event, the fact that so many folks like it and that Hill Auditorium was packed (it’s an almost 4000 seat house) means that, thanks to JM, a whole bunch of people got their butts away from streaming Netflix and in with a whole bunch of other folks. That’s definitely worth a yell.

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