Thursday, January 4, 2007

Where's the loose connection?

As you know, finding ways to see theatre without going broke is my main hobby. But there’s one show currently on Broadway that I wanted to see so much, I finally broke down and paid for it. For all you Sondheim lovers, here’s my long and cranky review of John Doyle’s Company—one more in the never-ending parade of things that should be great but aren’t. Maybe I should change the title of my blog?

Ask anybody—Company has problems. Actually, I would say it has one major problem: the book. But then I’d sound like one of those Sondheim fans who blame his book writers for everything, and Lord knows George Furth et al. are testy about that. So, okay, we won’t lay all the blame for Company’s failings at Furth’s feet, even though he is responsible for the two least effective, least likeable books in the Sondheim canon. Let’s just say that the songs in Company are not what makes it hard to stage effectively. I can remember how captivated I was by the soundtrack, the first time I heard it (it was the serviceable 1995 Roundabout recording, by the way; I don’t recommend the original as a listening experience, but that’s another discussion). It’s a remarkable cycle of songs, each one a little play all of its own. I staged the numbers in my head as I listened to them, and I wondered about what came between them, what happened to set them up, where they led the characters. Then, at some point, I got my hands on a copy of the script, and I was tremendously disappointed to discover that the songs were strung together by a lame series of sketches. In Furth’s contributions, the characters who were so complex and articulate in song became shallow and “kooky” in conversation. Maybe, I thought, Company is best experienced on CD (and in my head).

I did eventually see Company performed, in college, and as I expected, the long stretches of dialogue, the “funny” encounters between Robert and his married friends, were only just worth sitting through to get to the songs. This was a small undergraduate production, held in the basement of my dorm, and the cast was only so-so. But they all clearly loved the songs as much as I did, and so the musical numbers were as thrilling as the dialogue scenes were uncomfortable. I remember getting chills listening to the cast perform the opening number, thinking, not, Damn, this is a great performance, but nevertheless, Damn, this is a great piece of music. Damn, this is a great piece of theatre.

I tell you all this to explain how I approached the John Doyle production of Company. I truly expected this to be a revelation. In this case, I thought, the disparity between the thoroughly developed musical numbers and the underdeveloped skits that link them should be much less of an issue—Doyle’s actors-playing-instruments gimmick seemed like exactly what was needed to pull all the numbers together and make the show feel complete. If everyone was toting an instrument, it would seem only right that the score do all the heavy lifting, and there would be no need to pretend that the dialogue scenes were anywhere near as load-bearing or absorbing as the songs. They could be acknowledged as the light diversions that they are (at best), and the artistic focus would always be where it belonged, on the music and lyrics.

If you’ve seen this production, you probably know that’s not how it worked out. Instead of giving the score its rightful prominence, Doyle’s direction somehow ends up making the book scenes the center of the evening. I know that’s hard to believe, but let me explain: Actors in any production of Company have the challenge of making some connection, however loose, between the complex and articulate characters who sing the songs and the superficial and silly ones who speak the dialogue. It seems to me the only way a director can solve that problem is to make sure the performers are acting the songs as thoroughly as they possibly can, and then handle the skits between songs as quickly and lightly as possible. Figure out what, if anything, the sketches add to the whole, do your best to extract that, and then hurry through the rest of the dialogue before the audience starts fidgeting. But in this production, the poor actors have no hope of being able to act the songs, because (with the exception of Raúl Esparza) they have to worry about playing their instruments and going through the motions of Doyle’s mostly pointless “staging” while they sing. Take, for example, the three girlfriends singing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” who blat the “doo-doo doo-doo doo!” button to each line on their saxophones. The first time they do this, it’s cute, and it gets a chuckle from the audience. But that only works once, when it’s a surprise, and for the rest of the song you’re just watching these three women go back and forth between singing and tooting into their horns, which means they’re always cutting off the end of their sung phrases in order to get their mouths around the reeds. They do the best they can to accomplish both tasks at once, but at no time do they ever seem to be thinking about the words they’re saying. How could they? They’re singing and playing, and sort of dancing, all at the same time; they’re busy enough without having to act the song, too! Doyle’s saxophone trick gets a laugh, but the jokes in the song fall flat, and if you ask me, that’s a sign your priorities are out of order.

I don’t mean to pick on those three actresses, because every actor in the show has the same problem, even during chorus numbers. And even when an actor gets to do a solo number without playing an instrument at the same time, the show’s gimmick prevents it from being the kind of performance it ought to be. Take, for example, Angel Desai, who plays Marta. She comes out from behind her sax for “Another Hundred People,” so she can concentrate fully on actually performing the song. But the song ends up performing her—she can’t comfortably reach its highest notes, so every time she gets to the line about “they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks,” she has to sing it in this pinched “character” voice. She does her best to stay in character, but I found myself feeling bad for her—why not cast someone who could sing the song? The answer, I assume, is that they couldn’t find someone who could sing in the appropriate range, and fit the part, generally, and play a handful of instruments. Again: priorities?

So, as crazy as it seems, the musical numbers end up playing like circus performances, instead of as theatre. Most of the time, the actors might as well be singing in another language, for all the content they get across. And since the songs don’t have their normal impact, the book takes on an unhealthy emphasis. Which is not to say the book scenes are well directed—the minimalist set design is not so much a bold decision as it is a lack of a decision, and the halfhearted staging of the various dialogue scenes is simply puzzling. It feels almost as though Doyle ran out of time during rehearsals and didn’t bother to stage the book scenes. The actors seem relieved when they can set down their instruments and just talk to each other, but Furth’s skits don’t have the weight they would need to stand up unassisted on a set with no real definition. I’m not saying Company needs three walls with practical doors—it’s never had that, and the structure requires a flexible setup. But it needs more than a few cubes, a pillar and a shiny wood floor to help it along. The birthday-party dialogue at the beginning and end of the show is reduced to pure nonsense, since it is unclear that this stage full of people are supposed to be in the same room, let alone that they are in Bobby’s apartment. The question of how best to interpret the birthday-party frame is an interesting one, but I couldn’t tell you what Doyle’s answer is, since he seemed to have decided not to interpret it at all. The only way his staging could be regarded as an adequate “interpretation” is if you assume that everyone in the audience is familiar with the show to begin with (his Sweeney had a similar problem). Why not cut the birthday party stuff, if you’re not going to do anything with it? (And while we’re asking questions, aren’t you glad you’ve never been to a party with George Furth? Because judging from what passes for cocktail conversation in Company and Merrily, he must have pretty terrible experiences on the party circuit.) Then, during the karate scene, Harry and Sarah didn’t even touch each other; they faced out from opposite corners of the stage and wrestled with air, turning what should be an opportunity for physical comedy into a thoroughly confusing distraction from “The Little Things You Do Together.” Is this some kind of metaphor? everyone wondered. Or is the director just afraid of what might happen if his actors get hurt, given the difficulty of teaching someone else their parts on short notice?

In general, the staging is an unfocused mess, and mostly consists of people walking slowly around the periphery of the playing area. You never know where to look, and no matter where you do look, you probably aren’t going to see much of anything happening. During songs sung by multiple people, no matter where I directed my attention, I always seemed to catch an actor perfunctorily spitting out the lyrics so he could focus on playing the next phrase on his instrument. And all of the dialogue scenes are interminable, each one more than the last. It is unthinkable to me that a director would rush through a number like “Getting Married Today” or “The Ladies Who Lunch” and then drag out the dialogue immediately following, but that’s precisely what Doyle does. Heather Laws, who plays Amy, does the best she can with “Getting Married Today”—and she has some funny moments when she isn’t singing—but the tempo is far too fast, and as a result, you can’t understand a word she’s saying, so what’s the point?

Seriously, folks. You know these songs. So tell me this: if you’re a director, and you’re doing a production of Company, and at your first preview you notice that the audience isn’t laughing at any of the punch lines—“By Monday I’ll be floating in the Hudson with the other garbage,” “…Getting a divorce together,” “It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull…”—how do you not realize that something is terribly, terribly wrong? If the songs, these practically fail-proof songs, aren’t doing their job—if they’re failing—how can you not drop everything (including, if necessary, your actors-as-orchestra conceit) and fix that?

And while we’re on the topic of Things That Should Make a Director Rethink His Approach at Some Point Before Opening Night: it is a mistake not to set any production of Company in the ’70s. I understand why people resist it; I understand that Company is still a relevant commentary on relationships, and that directors are afraid they’ll obscure its relevance and turn it into some live-action That ’70s Show if they put everyone in bell-bottoms and butterfly lapels. But setting it, as written, in “the present” is a mistake. I’m not saying you need to decorate the stage like the set of Laugh-In, but at least acknowledge that the dialogue and the music are grounded in the artistic and social culture of 35 years ago. (I mean, come on, 2006-Bobby wasn't even born yet when the part was written!) Try making the characters live “today,” as Doyle does, and you encounter cultural non sequiturs at every turn. “My service will explain” is the obvious one, but there’s also the awkward sexual-revolution fallout (like that scene where Peter hits on Bobby), and the constant giggling about seeing one’s analyst, and the pot-smoking, and the fact that all the wives are silly and the husbands long-suffering. And pretty much everything referenced in “The Ladies Who Lunch” (sorry to break it to you, but “Does anyone still wear a hat?” is not the trenchant comment it was 35 years ago). Not to mention the central conceit of “A 35-year-old bachelor? What is he waiting for?!” is itself a tad dated—he should be 45, at least, if we’re talking 2006. And the music, of course, the music, which sings with the rhythms of its time and not ours. Company is a deeply moving work that is obviously, sometimes painfully of its time, and if you try to fight that, you will lose.

I haven’t even gotten to Raúl Esparza yet, and I can’t talk about his performance without also talking about how bad my seats were, and of course I can’t talk about that without bitching, once again, about how outrageously expensive it is to see a show on Broadway. I know by now that it’s foolish to sit anywhere but the orchestra and still expect to have a good experience. But most of the time, I can’t afford orchestra seats. Hell, I couldn’t even afford the seats I got—which were in the second-to-last row of the theatre—except at a 50% discount. And I was still paying an uncomfortable $40 per seat, and I was definitely not having a forty-dollar experience, let alone an eighty-dollar one. Call me unreasonable, but I think, if you expect people to pay $80 to see your show, you should make sure they can at least see everything that’s happening onstage. Silly me, expecting someone to check the sightlines.

The reason I bring this up in connection with Raúl is that he seemed to be having some very intense acting moments down there on the stage, but damned if I could make them out from where I was sitting. (I had the same complaint about Michael Cerveris in Sweeney Todd, even though I was lucky enough to see that show from the orchestra—from where I sat, his much-vaunted “intensity” didn’t seem to be making it across the footlights.) So I can’t say much about Raúl’s take on Bobby; on that I will have to take the critics, who watch the show from the good seats, at their word. But I will say that whatever he’s doing in terms of defining a notoriously hard-to-define character, he isn’t getting much help from the show around him, and he isn’t really giving it much help either. As for his singing, the term “mannered” comes to mind, but if you’ve heard him sing before you probably knew that. (I think “mannered” may actually be Raúl’s middle name.) The only one onstage unencumbered by an instrument, he seems to be trying to level the field by voluntarily burdening his own performance with self-consciously unusual choices about rhythm, the deployment of vibrato, and so on. At times it’s enough to make you long for the straightforwardness of a Boyd Gaines or a Larry Kert. However, he is pleasingly powerful on the high notes and the loud notes, and if you can get past his weird tics, he does a decent job with Bobby’s solos. If the rest of the show would do its job in setting them up, they might be truly effective.

Going in with my expectations high, I was astonished to find this production lacking in so many ways. It actually pained me to see the numbers mishandled, and worry that as a result, my fellow audience members (not to mention my date) might walk away wondering what the fuss is all about, vis-à-vis the genius of Sondheim. But all that said, I was still crying just a bit by the end of “Being Alive.” Whenever people complain that they don’t “get” Company, or Bobby’s journey, I want to direct them to its gorgeous finale. Because “Being Alive” is what it’s all about, and if you’re directing Company, your job is just to get there. And I learned from this production that even if you stage the finale badly, and even if nothing that came before it has done anything to get you there, it’s still an irresistibly powerful song. In being reminded once again of why Sondheim has his reputation for genius, I had a momentary glimpse of what this production might have been, and I was much more sorry than grateful.

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