The Limbo Room

on January 23, 2006 by Ray Greene
"The Limbo Room" is one of those movies that's hard to categorize but easy to admire. The premise is essentially a comedic one: an existential look at the life of a struggling actress named Ann (Andrea Powell) who is stuck in a seemingly never-ending rut as understudy to a temperamental diva (Melissa Leo) in a modestly successful off-Broadway show. As Ann nears 40, the tectonic plates of ennui and immobility she's built her world on begin to shift perceptibly. Her boyfriend of a decade proposes, but only to take her father up on the condo he promised to buy the couple if they marry. Meanwhile, things start getting odd at the show as a male lead dies and weird accusations of onstage aggression start to fly between the leading lady Ann yearns to replace and the male understudy who has made the leap Ann dreams about: from 'the limbo room," where the replacement actors are kept separated from the actual cast, to a major role as a leading player.

Co-writer/director Debra Eisenstadt is an actress herself who understudied the original stage production of David Mamet's sexual harassment drama "Oleanna" before taking over Rebecca Pidgeon's lead role as the accusing student when Mamet adapted his work to the screen. Understudying "Oleanna" informs Eisenstadt's movie in more ways than one. She has a trenchant understanding of the thousand humiliations that populate the peripheral showbiz world she's chronicling, but has married it to a dark, Mamet-esque sexual undercurrent that provides a harrowing twist ending which shocks the viewer but somehow seems entirely bought and paid for by what has gone before.

In its own subtle way, "The Limbo Room" trumps the more stentorian "Oleanna" by presenting a stirring drama of ideas in an accessible plotline that moves almost imperceptibly from light to dark. A large portion of credit goes to the subtle performances Eisenstadt gets from a cast that includes Zack Griffiths as the bad-boy understudy who makes good and "Station Agent" star Peter Dinklage in yet another of his seemingly endless showy cameos, in this case as a fey theatrical agent. The ever-resourceful Melissa Leo breaks out of her recent run of desperate blue-collar hausfraus with a broad and winning caricature of an aging drama queen, while Andrea Powell strikes an intriguing balance between empathetic striver and the very real despair and desperation that lurks just beneath Ann's plucky surface. Starring Andrea Powell, Melissa Leo and Jonathan Sherman. Directed by Debra Eisenstadt. Written by Debra Eisenstadt and Jill Eisenstadt. Produced by Debra Eisenstadt, Alessandra Gatien and Brett Morgen. No distributor set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 80 min

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