Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) is one of his most dazzling films, centering on San Francisco-based wiretapper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose interest in the ambiguous contents of one of his tapes sows the seeds of his self-destruction. The film and Coppola's direction were Oscar-nominated that year, as was the richly inventive sound design, by Walter Murch and Art Rochester. Given how cinematic the movie is, a stage version sounds unlikely, but leave it to scrappy Chicago talents to make one happen. Faithfully adapted by Kate Harris (with Coppola's approval) and directed by Kenneth Lee, The Conversation, the play, was produced to considerable acclaim by the Pyewacket Theatre Company in January 2005. It debuted Off Off Broadway at 29th Street Rep this spring, this time directed by company co-founder Leo Farley and starring its artistic director, David Mogentale.

Retained was sound designer Joseph Fosco, who also contributed original music. “Ken saw it as a very linear piece, with everything happening to Harry as it occurs,” says Fosco. “But Leo conceived it as a memory play, with Harry, a bystander in his own life, looking back. It's a very different take.” 29th Street Rep bills itself as “where brutal theatre lives,” and a more expansive production on a wider and deeper stage in Chicago, including projections on a series of moving panel screens, was cut back to a bare minimum. Mark Symczak's set is six doors, a platform, and an enclosure, with Harry's personal effects in his loft (like his saxophone) and tricks of the trade in his workshop gathered on either side of the stage.

In the opening sequence, Harry bugs a young couple in a park. The actors, who were silent in the Chicago version as a park projection set the scene, here quietly mouth the words that we hear on Harry's reel-to-reel setup, complete with dropouts as they move in and out of recording range. The ambient noises on the soundtrack (and those from New York, occasionally bleeding into a theatre about the size of one of San Francisco's cable cars) underscore the locations, as does Fosco's transitional music. “It's electronic and abstract, and devoid of naturalistic sounds. The score brings you into Harry's frame of mind.”

The play does not update the action to our digital age, and the equipment cluster on stage left, which enables Harry to uncover a planned murder, has a pleasingly antique quality. “The reel-to-reel tapedecks are what they would have used, and we put in some homemade gadgets as well. Harry was recording the conversation from three tapedecks, and when he was editing the tape, he would go from one to the other, rewinding and trying to get the best quality. It was interesting to do that on stage.”

While the set was reduced in New York, the audio component was ratcheted up. A grant from the Edith Luytens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation specifically for the sound design was invaluable to the show, Fosco notes, as were the “extremely supportive” efforts of supplier One Dream Sound. “We didn't have a computer playback system in Chicago, which limited a lot of what we could do,” Fosco says. “The sound in New York is much more subtle, consistent, and enveloping. The voiceover recording had to be redone and remixed. Having done it once, I had a different feel for where Harry was at different points throughout the show and what the recordings had to reflect. There was a lot more I could do with the scenes where Harry is pulling out the voices from the backgrounds on the tapes, and I could move the sound around the space more easily.”

An example of the sonic fluidity comes early in the first act, a “dream moment,” Fosco says, “when Harry comes home and starts playing his sax. The two characters he's been recording come in and start to speak. It worked great with the equipment we had. The sax just goes away, and this underlying ‘dream sound’ comes up with the lights — a very smooth transition, as the sax recording Harry had been playing to is routed upstage into the background, and this other low sound evolves out of it, starting from the subwoofer way upstage and eventually pulling up into the mains. Their words are recorded with a little reverb on them. You first hear them live; then we cue in this reverb version that doesn't match exactly. That off-centeredness adds depth to the sequence. The scene then shifts from them talking to each other to them mocking Harry, and the audio shifts, too, with the dream sound becoming harsher in a cross-fade that turns around. As they exit, the laughter and vocals fade away, and as the dream sound fades, up comes the record player again. It's a terrific moment that wasn't nearly that involved in Chicago.”

29th Street Rep's “wonderful” sound coordinator is Vera Beren. Equipment provided by One Dream Sound includes the SFX computer playback system; an Altec Dual 15" DTS215 subwoofer; two Meyer UPA-1P speakers for mains; QSC amplifiers; and Ashly graphic equalizers and speaker crossovers. Two 12" speakers usually used as 29th Street's mains were repositioned upstage center and back of house, and two 5" JBL monitors are used as practicals for Harry's workshop and apartment. A Mackie 1604 VLZ Pro mixing console at the theatre is used exclusively for routing, not for live mixing or level setting. “The challenge was to get the audience to see the show through sound, and to make a total theatrical experience from the film,” says Fosco.