The Theatre at the Ace Hotel is no stranger to star-studded live reads. A short 20 months ago, it played host to what, at the time, seemed like would be the only public performance of the recently leaked script of "The Hateful Eight." On Wednesday night, that same downtown Los Angeles location was the venue for another Quentin Tarantino creation, as Jason Reitman and Film Independent assembled an impressive group of performers to recreate “True Romance” in its entirety.
Days prior to the event, Live Read impresario Reitman announced that Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette would be reprising their roles from the 1993 Tony Scott film as Clarence and Alabama Worley, two young lovers caught in the middle of brewing standoff between pimps, drug kingpins and Los Angeles police.
Whether fueled by the knowledge of this reunion or by a voracious love for what made the film a classic of the decade, the audience gave plenty of indications this would be a memorable night before the house even opened up. Walking through the lobby, you could spot a handful of patrons who had prepared for the evening as if it was Tarantino-Con. A Jackrabbit Slim’s shirt from “Pulp Fiction” here, a shirt emblazoned with the "True Romance" poster art there. One audience member was resplendent in Clarence Worley cosplay, complete with Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and (what I can only assume was) fake blood crusted on his left temple.
The pre-show lobby entertainment? An Elvis impersonator, of course, belting out The King’s standards. Decked out in a white jumpsuit with patriotic red and blue speckled bald eagles, he posed for pictures and played the crowd, even changing up some of the songs’ lyrics to fit the evening ("I got a woman/Way cross town/That’s Patty Arquette…").
Once the audience was seated, Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell came out to kick off the evening. "Usually, I wear a costume for these things," he said, before introducing Reitman, "but I’m from Detroit, my name is Elvis and I’m wearing blue suede shoes."
Reitman, as the evening’s master of ceremonies, didn’t take long to show that his giddiness over the evening matched that of the ardent fans in the audience. "There’s a lot of bad language in this one," he said in a devious tone. After extolling the virtues of Tarantino, he began to reveal the cast one by one. The only yet-to-be-determined casting announcement was Jason Segel in the role of Floyd, the stoner Los Angeles roommate originally played by Brad Pitt in the film.
But the real surprise came when Slater and Arquette walked out together in all their Worley glory; he in a leather jacket and sunglasses and her in full costume: Leggings, baby blue sunglasses and the leopard-print jacket shared by a handful of women sitting in the audience.
As the reading commenced, stills from the original film were projected on the screen behind the chairs arranged for the actors in a single line. Reitman had explained that this performance would be of an early draft of "True Romance," which led to a couple of amusing contradictions as he read the script locations (Denny’s became "Rae’s Diner" and eventually the LA Zoo became Six Flags Magic Mountain). As with the other Live Reads, this was an unrehearsed performance, so even Slater had to pause for a split second when one of Clarence's first lines got a few raucous whoops of approval from the balcony.
But despite the logistic constraints of the proceedings, the evening’s stars quickly demonstrated their worthiness for the parts. Although each cast member had been announced in a primary role, a few of them picked up some of the side characters to fill in the gaps of one-scene, single-line roles. The first performer to flex his versatility was J.K. Simmons, who flipped around his Detroit Tigers baseball cap while playing one of the pimp Drexl’s first victims, disappearing into a voice that couldn’t be farther from J. Jonah Jameson if it tried.
Most visibly amused by Simmons’ transformation was Keegan-Michael Key, who chameleoned his way into a handful of roles himself, including the unhinged, dreadlocked Drexl originally played by Gary Oldman. Not merely relying on the role’s race swap for laughs, Key relished each of the pimp’s outrageous lines, pausing ever so slightly after "But I ain’t as pretty as a coupla titties" to sneak a quick grin to the audience. He even tossed in a high-pitched shriek to punctuate Drexl’s violent demise.
Another bit-part all-star was Paul Scheer, whose deadpan delivery as the casting director at Dick Ritchie’s audition had his "The League" co-star Mark Duplass and the rest of the panel in stitches. Later, his impassioned pleas for help as Elliot Blitzer, the ill-fated assistant and aspiring actor, were another highlight, especially after being introduced in the script as "a GQ blow-dry boy" despite being visibly bald.
Though Tarantino didn’t make an appearance, his script gave Reitman some laugh lines of his own. Describing a post-apocalypse Bel Air, glorifying the wonders of Pink’s Hot Dogs and multiple knowing references to the lives of young actors played big to the LA crowd.
Assuming the role originated by James Gandolfini, Jon Favreau played Virgil with a quiet menace, giving the evening’s most understated performance. His proximity to Arquette made for one of the evening’s best sight gags: When Alabama finally overpowers Virgil in the LA motel room, Arquette playfully whacked Favreau until his character’s death.
Segel was the lone cast member who stayed in character the entire time, embodying Floyd’s extreme carefree vibe in a beanie and slouched-back posture. His mellow delivery of Floyd’s directions to the mobsters looking for Clarence and Alabama was far calmer than Pitt’s in the film, a brilliant edit well-suited for the overall speed of the evening.
Live Read mainstay Mae Whitman perfectly channeled the nervous Michael Rapaport energy for the part of Dick Ritchie. Her interpretation of the TJ Hooker sides was a delightful, textbook "actors acting as actors," with heavy Rapaport New Yorker spirit and all. Despite being the most seasoned Live Read participant in the history of the series, she seemed to be having more fun than anyone else.
Jay and Mark Duplass were tasked with picking up the parts of Nicholson and Dimes, the two detectives whose fundamental misunderstanding of the origins of Clarence’s cocaine briefcase spells doom for a large majority of the film’s characters. The two attacked their roles with glee, as if they had been rehearsing this part like the brothers in "The Wolfpack," just waiting for the day to unveil their interpretation to the world. Their wild gesturing and overlapping dialogue was a perfect kickoff to the chaos of the film’s final act.
The true scene-stealer of the night was Kevin Pollak. When Reitman first brought him on stage, he had correctly predicted, "Oh my God, this is going to be so much fun." And the comedian did not disappoint. In addition to playing one of the henchman riffing with Simmons in the early drug murder scene, Pollak also mimicked the manic, percussive dialogue of producer Lee Donowitz and the velvet tones of Elvis Presley. (During the scenes of Clarence’s Elvis visions, the performer from the lobby stepped on stage and sidled right alongside Pollak as a visual aid.)
But the feather in Pollak’s cap is his Christopher Walken impression. And in the infamous Sicilian scene in Clarence’s father’s trailer, Pollak had the widest of canvases to show off his expertise. Throughout the night, many of the actors onstage were following along with their scripts as those around them got through the thick dialogue. But by the time Pollak had gotten to "I’m the Antichrist!" in that distinctive Walken cadence, all eyes were on him.
Much like in the film, Arquette was the heart of the performance. Her repeated refrain of "You’re so cool" got some of the evening’s most vocal approval and elicited wide smiles from the rest of the cast. The various scenes of Alabama crying felt as lived in as a top-rate radio play version of the script. And as she read her final voiceover and Hans Zimmer’s music from the final scene piped through the speakers, it became clear that despite the juicy monologues afforded the other characters, she’s the main reason why everyone was back here again 22 years later.
As the audience leapt out of their chairs for an immediate standing ovation, the cast got up to show their acknowledgement of the magnitude of the evening. Mitchell came out to bid everyone a fond farewell ("Let me apologize to all the Persians, Asians and African Americans who were offended tonight!") and just like that, the story of the Worleys drifted back into the stuff of cinema dreams.