By Alaina Mabaso
Mt. Airy playwright and screenwriter Larry Loebell, 60, readily admits to the bizarre contradictions of his new film, a “riff” on Feodor Dostoyevsky’s 1864 novella, “Notes From Underground,” premiering at this year’s Philly Fringe Festival.
In “Dostoyevsky Man,” Loebell’s protagonist is Gilbert Findlay, a disgruntled professor of classic literature forced from his academic kingdom by a “nefarious” contemporary-minded colleague. Findlay hatches a desperate scheme to regain his job and films it on his iPhone.
“He recognizes the irony of this,” the 60-year-old screenwriter explains of Findlay’s storytelling. “He says, ‘Dostoyevsky would’ve HATED this.’ [Dostoyevsky] didn’t like technology. He would’ve hated social media. He would’ve seen all these as the destruction of our souls.”
But that doesn’t stop this fictional professor from making the most of modern tools to create and share his story. “It’s part of his complexity,” Loebell notes, allowing that the “epic[ally]” self-involved protagonist may generate “repulsion” as well as sympathy and humor from the viewer. “He’s complicated; he’s hard. I’m drawn to characters in all of my pieces who are not easy.”
When Findlay finds himself unmoored in a world that wants only pop literature, he takes extreme measures. He kidnaps three people at gunpoint: his best student, the dean of the university and a school janitor, forcing them to listen to the lecture that he hopes will win his job back.
“In a sense, he recognizes that what he’s doing is crazy, yet he feels such desperation,” Loebell explains. “His own best interest would be not to do this, to dust himself off and find another job. But he can’t do that. He feels like the people who have wronged him must in some way come to a reckoning.”
While the play doesn’t dwell on current politics, it’s a frustration that millions of laid-off Americans can relate to. Loebell himself is well-qualified to write about the vagaries of the academic world. I first met him eight years ago when I was his student in playwriting at Glenside’s Arcadia University.
“There’s a kind of cruelty in the notion that you spend your life studying something and teaching it and investing in it, and then by some method that’s really beyond your control, you get judged for a bunch of things, and you’re in for life or you’re out,” Loebell says of the stresses of the un-tenured professor’s academic career.
Loebell first encountered “Notes From Underground” as a student and wrote a 10-minute play inspired by it in grad school. Several years later, he expanded the piece into a seven-character play that he entered in several contests, and while it received some positive notice, it was never produced.
“One of the great things about this experience for me is that I finally found the form the piece is supposed to be in,” Loebell says of adapting his piece into this year’s film, with the help of actor and co-director Seth Reichgott, who carries the one-man film onscreen.
They had committed to entering “Dostoyevsky Man” in this year’s Fringe Festival before the film was actually made. “I was totally freaked out,” Loebell says, and the tremors that accompany launching a new piece are unlikely to subside before the premiere.
“I originally thought we would fake it — make it look like he was filming on his iPhone,” Loebell says of carrying out the film’s concept while actually shooting with a high-end digital camera. But as the start of filming approached — on a shoestring budget of $600 — he realized that his own iPhone was the right tool for the piece, both aesthetically and to prove the modern accessibility of the art of filmmaking.
“It’s the movie which proves that anyone who wants to make a movie can make one. And that was part of my point,” Loebell says. “Part of what I wanted was to take these low-end tools and make something watchable and interesting.”
Loebell and Reichgott wrapped up two months of filming in June. Arcadia University’s library, hallways, classrooms and dining hall provided most of the film’s settings, and the scenes from Findlay’s own apartment were shot on a set constructed in Loebell’s own home, much to the chagrin of his dogs, who had to make room.
After many years and many incarnations of his “Dostoyevsky” script, Loebell is looking forward to sharing the story, however nerve-racking a premiere can be. “This felt to me like the perfect Fringe movie,” he says. “I don’t think anybody has seen anything quite like it.”
Loebell is a graduate of Central High School (228th graduating class). He has a BA in English from Temple University, an MA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University, and an MFA in film and television, also from Temple. He is a lifelong resident of Northwest Philadelphia who grew up on Washington Lane. His play, “House, Divided” (“satisfyingly complex” — Toby Zinman, Variety) was nominated for a Barrymore Award as Outstanding New Play after its 2008 production at InterAct Theater Company.
Loebell’s wife of 40 years, Diane, is an attorney for the City of Philadelphia Law Department. Their son David and his family (wife Pam and kids Clara and Amy) are also Mt. Airy residents. David, also a Central High grad, works for Weavers Way Food Co-op, and Pam works for Project Learn school. “We are a pretty dyed-in-the-wool Mt. Airy family,” Larry said last week.
Larry Loebell and Seth Reichgott’s “Dostoyevsky Man” will be shown on Friday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m., at the University of the Arts’ Connelly Auditorium on the 8th floor of Terra Hall, 211 S. Broad St., and on Sunday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m., at Arcadia University’s Spruance Theater in Glenside. (Take Arcadia’s Church Road entrance and then straight to the parking lot next to the 150-seat theater.) Tickets are $9 and are available through the Fringe Festival website, www.livearts-fringe.org For more information, call 215-413-9006.