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Who's Afraid of 'Bad Manners'?

[whitespace] Bad Manners
Tawdry Temptress: In 'Bad Manners,' Kim (Caroleen Feeney), a born troublemaker, flirts with married professor Wes (David Strathairn) during a weekend visit.

Academic couples trade barbs in David Gilman's take on Edward Albee

By Richard von Busack

Our president's painful wriggling in front of the interrogators is astutely anticipated in one scene of the 1997 independent film Bad Manners, which checks in for a two-week run at the Roxie Oct. 9-22. A husband has to deny that he was schtupping a house guest, even though the woman's howls of pleasure were waking up the rest of the household at 3am.

The film's source is David Gilman's noted play, Ghost in the Machine; it uses not just the scheme but also the theme of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The festivities depicted in Bad Manners are variations on Martha's favorites: "Hump the Hostess" and "Get the Guests." As in Virginia Woolf, the hosts, husband Wes (David Strathairn) and wife Nancy (Bonnie Bedelia), are middle-aged academics, childless and hating it.

Their guests for the weekend are Matt (Saul Rubinek), an old lover of Nancy's from her student days, grown pudgy and slightly ridiculous, and his stunning young sleep-over date, Kim, a cybernetics grad student. Kim is played by Caroleen Feeney, a tall, cruel, raven-haired actress who looks like she ought to be kickboxing Tura Satana. Kim, who is studying game theory, represents the kind of callous scientific mentality that all liberal-arts majors loathe, especially when it comes time to match paychecks.

These barely invited guests have arrived at an especially bad time. Wes, a religious studies teacher, has just been denied tenure, and his future looks gloomy. As described by Nancy, Wes' fallback plan is to drink Scotch and pretend to work on his novel.

The newly arrived Matt--tenured, damn him--is coming to Harvard in full triumph to discuss the publication of his amazing musicological breakthrough. Matt's subject is the noted avant-garde composer Minh Schubert. Schubert's "Cambodian Requiem"--a montage of electronic chirps, belches, squawks and Jimmy Page-style shrieks--is found upon close examination by Matt and Kim to contain the first eight bars of the Protestant hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Since this music was created from a random computer program, who put the famous hymn in it? God? A computer that's gained consciousness on its own, as Kim speculates? Bullshit, Wes protests; the hymn must have been planted there by Schubert, Kim or Matt.

Wes likes these guests even less when $50 turns up missing from his wallet. Kim, a born troublemaker, teases the gray-bearded Wes sexually. It's a sore point for him--he's been as sexless as a sea worm, though Kim's tawdriness excites him. Kim compounds the disturbance by reminding Nancy that many a neglected married woman has had affairs. Meanwhile, Matt's tender attentions to the frustrated wife threaten to split the very-married hosts asunder in one quick weekend.

Gilman's play has been opened up with some pleasant vistas of the affluent parts of Massachusetts, and Bad Manners is lighter than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What's at stake here isn't the end of humanity--but the end of the humanities department. Gilman isn't as high-pitched as Edward Albee, which can be sort of a loss.

This story of betrayal, lies and double-talk is just a cozy entertainment, sometimes lacking in sufficient acridness. But cozy entertainments have their point. There's more than enough wickedness to make up for the arch, artificial passages in the film. Strathairn, a regular star in John Sayles' movies, is droll as Wes, the toast-dry academic.

Fans of '70s cinema will be especially delighted to see Bedelia's return as the neglected Nancy. The role of a scorned wife is no fun, but the plump, sexy Bedelia makes the part the center of Bad Manners. She plays Nancy with humor, gravity and attractive weariness--witness, for instance, the moment when she receives a compliment from Matt that she doesn't know whether to believe, let alone accept. The last shot in the film, which is better not described, is intended as a triumph of betrayal; in Bedelia's alluring expression, it looks more like a promise of pleasures to come.

Bad Manners, based on the play by David Gilman, photographed by and starring Bonnie Bedelia and David Strathairn, plays Oct. 9-22 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St.; 415/863-1087.

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From the October 19-November 1, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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