Film Review: A Bread Factory, Parts One and Two

A flawed yet complex and ambitious original work about the struggles (financial, political, cultural) of a community theater in upstate New York
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Final acts in movies (and plays) are often problematic: either unprepared for, gratuitous or something else altogether that doesn’t measure up. Consider Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory Parts One and Two, a set of two films (each two hours). Part One, subtitled For the Sake of Gold, is original and intriguing. Part Two, Walk With Me Awhile, is overstated and adds nothing story-wise short of a few snippets that could have been incorporated into its predecessor. The two films are intended to be screened back-to-back, separated by an intermission.

That said, A Bread Factory is an ambitious, multi-themed work that’s generally engaging and certainly thought-provoking. It grapples with the unlikely topics of arts funding, arts education and art itself, its definition and value (utilitarian and esthetic), while casting a harsh light on local governing boards awash in political calculations, manipulations and behind the scenes shenanigans. Gentrification underpins all of it. The tone is an unexpected amalgam of heartfelt affection, good-natured ribbing and brutal send-up.

Set in the fictionalized upstate community of Checkford, evoking shades of Our Town’s Grover’s Corners, the two-parter recounts the struggles of a long-established not-for-profit arts center, housed in a former bread factory and run by two aging lesbians, the intense Dorothea (Tyne Daly in a terrific performance) and her gentler life-long partner Greta (Elizabeth Henry).

The theater prides itself on its genial liberal arts tradition and its classical repertoire, though the audiences are thinning and it’s grown increasingly dependent on local public subsidies, which underwrite its educational outreach program. Without those monies the theater would in all probability go belly up after 40 years on the scene.

That’s precisely the crisis it’s facing with the nearby construction of a glitzy, high-tech arts complex that is physically superior to the Bread Factory in all ways, short of its limited parking provisions (sly touch). Its resident company is led by a Chinese “conceptual art” pair, known as May Ray (Janet Hsieh and George Young), who’ve never met a performance art cliché they don’t like—from lofty but totally meaningless chants and other absurd, self-satisfied utterances to sporting bizarre retro space ship costuming equally devoid of context.

Yet the town’s governing board is seduced by them, viewing the team and its shiny new home, dubbed The FEEL Institute, as a tourist attraction/economic boost. Without too much regret it decides to cut the Bread Factory’s educational subsidy to support the new kids on the block. The board is getting ready to take a vote, and the two sides are rallying their troops.

The new facility's slick administrator, Karl (Trevor St. John), who may or may not have paid off the board, threatens to “expose” Dorothea if she and her team do not back down. He plans to inform the world she employs child labor in her theater and has hired an immigrant felon who works alongside the children. The fact is the local youngsters are mentee-volunteers and the alleged perpetrator, whose conviction was overturned, has lived in the community for decades.

But the wily Karl intuits what buttons to push, and Dorothea doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight him. Local newspaper editor Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), a notable theater critic (Philip Kerr), and Sir Walter, an aging, infirm actor living in the past (a poignant Brian Murray in his final role) are on her side but out of their league against Karl and his minions, including a low-IQ flavor of the month Hollywood star (Chris Conroy) who comes in to testify on behalf of May Ray.

On the surface there are the obvious good guys vs. bad guys—Carl et. al. are easy targets—yet Dorothea’s philosophy/artistic vision does not emerge unscathed either. Throughout, she is rehearsing a production of Euripides’ Hecuba, much of the process repetitious, self-important and dull beyond endurance. And then there’s the arts class helmed by a determined instructor-cum frustrated indie filmmaker (Janeane Garofalo), screaming her lungs out and working herself into a near frenzy in an effort to generate passion from eleven and twelve-year-olds. Depending on viewpoint, she’s a liberating influence or a moron.

Smaller narrative threads, some more compelling than others, are interwoven throughout: The self-effacing dramaturge Elsa (Nana Visitor) is married to a philandering union rep Jason (James Marsters), who’s having an affair with a board member. Elsa and Jason’s son Max (Zachary Sayle), an intern at the local newspaper, is hopelessly in love with a classmate (Erica Durham) who has her sights set on Hollywood. Sir Walter maintains an ongoing rage against the newly arrived drama critic because of a 50-year-old bad review. And present at all the rehearsals (but otherwise unaccounted for), there’s stoic Sandra, an African-American opera singer (played by opera star Martina Arroyo) prattling on about her late husband, who wrote appliance warranties, proclaiming more people read his work than Faulkner’s. Yep, lots of “characters” in this one.

But a few sections fall flat. The aforementioned editor, an over-the-top press advocate, disappears for no discernible reason. Before doing so, she instructs Max, an aspiring reporter, to “live in the moment” when he writes an article. False! No editor would ever proffer that advice to a young (or mature) journalist. Worse, after Jan goes missing Max takes over the paper. This subplot is an intrusive, credibility-free misstep.

But it’s got nothing on Part Two, which morphs into a pastiche of acting and musical theater styles. In Part One, performances are pegged to actual scenes of theatrical work. But in Part Two, we’re suddenly in La La Land, with characters bursting into song and dance out of nowhere. It’s become a movie musical. Tourists arrive in Checkford singing their hearts out, while coffee shop customers tap across the floor, upending the tone and sensibility that was so successfully drawn in Part One. And none of it is helped by a long snippet of Hecuba that the actors perform for a sparse audience at the Bread Factory. Locals moonlighting as actors have “found themselves,” but do we really care? Even Tyne Daly’s introspective and earthbound performance can’t salvage Part Two.

Like his previous films (In The Family, The Grief of Others), which were complex, contradictory and unique—with abrupt juxtapositions of mood, rhythm and viewpoint—Wang is attempting to say something here that’s not consistently accessible. There are so many cross-currents that cry out for elaboration, from the singer-dancers lost in technology (snapping selfies and/or texting away) to the Chinese performance artists in Part One. As a Taiwanese-American, is Wang making a political statement? Or is their invasion reflective of a broader commentary on the nature of globalism, for better or worse?

Wang is most ambiguous on the fate of Dorothea’s theater and how it’s to be interpreted. It’s the classic David vs. Goliath battle, and he’s rooting for her. At the same time, he’s hinting at the inexorability of the theater’s demise, presenting an ill-attended, moribund institution whose day has arguably come and gone. In the end Dorothea is still protesting, many townsfolk lined up behind her, placards in hand. But it’s an exercise in futility that’s almost Chekhovian, bringing to mind The Cherry Orchard. The final moment is quite lovely, wistful, as Greta reassures Dorothea that they still have each other.