At the age of 79, Andre Gregory resembles the most ecstatic tortoise on the planet: weathered, wattled, beaming. As the title of “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner” acknowledges, if you’ve heard of him at all it’s probably from Louis Malle’s 1981 movie “My Dinner With Andre,” in which the actor-stage director sat down for a meal and a very long chat with fellow traveler Wallace Shawn.
In that celebrated cult film — a paean to the art of conversation — Gregory and Shawn played fictionalized versions of themselves. (They always said they wanted to switch roles for the sequel.) By contrast, the new film, a fond, overindulgent documentary directed by the subject’s wife, Cindy Kleine, is all Gregory: a tour through the life and philosophy of a curiously idealistic creative seeker.
There’s much more of Kleine in the film and on the narrative track than there needs to be, with the result that “Before and After Dinner” often plays like a slightly twee home movie. (I’m not sure we need the photos of her high school years or her many past love affairs, and only a loving spouse would have kept the shot of Gregory getting ready for a dip in a hot tub.) Kleine’s film is rambling and unfocused but mostly charming, and it steps into deeper waters almost in spite of itself.
As a New York stage director, Gregory’s best known for an avant-garde “Alice in Wonderland” that ran for years in the 1960s and, more recently, for staging classics like Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in intimate settings (living rooms, warehouses) for invited audiences. Malle’s 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street” captured the process and so, in a less artful but still fruitful manner, does Kleine.
Gregory’s latest production, a version of Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” starring Shawn and Lisa Joyce, has been in rehearsals for a mind-boggling 14 years. We watch the actors burrow into their roles, attempting to push through “performance” and come out the other side, into the clean air of naturalism. The director sits on the sidelines, delighted and nonjudgmental, and we slowly understand that the means don’t justify the end for Gregory, they’re an end in themselves.
“Before and After Dinner” explores other aspects of his life and career. On one level, there’s the surreal comedy of seeing Gregory turn up in Hollywood character parts, like the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie “Demolition Man.” (He plays an evil prison warden who gets his eye gouged out.) I’d forgotten, too, how genuinely shamanistic his John the Baptist was in Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988). Shamanism turns out to be a big thing for Gregory: In life and art, he sees himself as a receptacle of wonder, New Age mysticism, and hoped-for transcendence.
Kleine also helps her husband probe his somewhat mysterious past. Gregory’s parents were high-living European Jews who arrived in America just as the Nazis came to power, and there’s some question as to whether the father, a blandly enigmatic figure in old photos, collaborated with the Germans in a scheme to topple the French franc. Investigators in Paris and Berlin are hired and come up with further questions but little resolution. What’s clear is that Gregory was a self-willed creation only partly by choice.
There’s some fine footage of the original “Alice” production — Gregory looking young and feral in interviews — and longtime collaborators like Shawn and actor Larry Pine are brought on to testify. But the meat of “Before and After Dinner” is in rehearsals for “The Master Builder,” where the beautiful framework of Ibsen’s writing allows for endless exploration. The film sees the creative process as a sacrament in which the play’s not the thing but the getting there is. Says Gregory, “All you need is a small room and some friends, and you can make a miracle in time.”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.