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A 21st century `couch' potato

Chris Eigeman goes from playing tony slackers to a 40ish neurotic in therapy.

June 10, 2007|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

IN "The Treatment," an adaptation of Daniel Menaker's 1998 novel about an emotionally crippled New York English teacher in psychoanalysis, a self-described "last great Freudian" sums up the malaise of his patient Jake Singer, played by beloved indie regular Chris Eigeman, thusly: "You make from the world a banal comedy, and you are a spectator."

A specific characterization, to be sure, but it also applies to Eigeman's previous roles: Possessed of an assertive, Aristotelian discourse style and charismatic stage presence, Eigeman, 42, is a veteran of films by cult auteurs Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan") and Noah Baumbach ("Kicking and Screaming"), for whom he turned in memorable portrayals of sarcastic bons vivants apathetic about their upper-class futures.

Yet in "The Treatment" -- in which the protagonist must not only survive a brutally raw psychiatrist but woo a wealthier East Side widow with a heart (Famke Janssen) -- Eigeman's previous archetype arrives in retrograde: Introduced to audiences dismayed and disassociated, he's older, more middle-class, vulnerable and unsure of himself, unable to live outside his books, lessons and language.

Due out Friday, "The Treatment" offers the most complex adult Eigeman has played, and it shows the actor's significant gravitas: Between his fast rationalizations of behavior and great literature, Singer displays an idiosyncratic dissonance with in-the-moment life and a brave desire to overcome it through love.

"In Whit's films, verbal aggression distracts you from other things in a character," Eigeman said recently at a hillside Los Angeles bungalow, where he was staying to mix his first writing-directing effort starring Janssen, "Turn the River." "With Jake Singer, though, it's the inverse predicament, which is maybe the same thing. Jake is so self-conscious, so unable to address his own thoughts or feelings without speaking about them in the third person. His struggle is not to frame himself in a literary way."

Which sounds like a challenging enough quality to portray without also having to act out a therapeutic relationship with a partner you can't see. In fact, Eigeman spent 85% of the film acting with Ian Holm, who portrays the "last great Freudian," sitting behind him. "It was like a bad joke -- my O. Henry story," Eigeman said. "I got to work with one of the greatest actors alive but couldn't look at him. I forgot to ask for that part of the wish. The hard part was trying not to laugh."

More comical, he added, was that the film, directed by Oren Rudavsky, was ultimately shown to a room of Freudians, and the doctors agreed that the patient needed serious help. "Their notes were, 'We never saw someone portrayed in such desperate need of therapy,' " he said. "I take that as a compliment really."

And what of the assumptions made about the Brooklyn-based actor, who spontaneously quotes Edith Wharton and riffs on the Yankees, by cultish fans adoring of his cerebral, urbane characters?

"What would you expect from an actor who debuted wearing a cummerbund?" asked the Denver native, who worked on Montana ranches as a kid and never saw the ballroom of the St. Regis until landing on his first film set.

"It's true that some of the films that I've done speak to a so-called discerning minority," Eigeman admitted. "But I don't think you have to be well read to be able to play someone well read; you just have to be able to say the words right. I'm just flattered that anyone has paid attention."

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