05 January 2017

'Falsettos'

by Kirk Woodward

[After making some very pertinent and interesting comments on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (6 December), frequent guest-blogger Kirk Woodward returns now with his assessment of the current Broadway revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos.  This time, Kirk provides a more standard performance assessment, but he has an interesting (and, I think valid, from his description—since I haven’t seen the production) take on the performance. Pay particular attention to Kirk’s opinion of Lapine’s direction because not only is it perceptive in its own right, but it makes a point about some (I’d say many) published reviews: they don’t cover directing very well.]

When I read about the current revival on Broadway of the musical Falsettos (music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Finn and James Lapine, directed by Lapine, opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on October 27, 2016 for a limited run of fourteen weeks), I ordered tickets immediately for two reasons. 

I wanted to see Brandon Uranowitz, who plays Mendel, the psychiatrist, in the musical. He is a family friend and a Tony Award nominee for his performance as the composer in the musical An American in Paris.

I also wanted to see Christian Borle, who plays Marvin in Falsettos and is unquestionably one of the finest actors on the musical stage. I have written about both of them in this blog (see Kirk’s “An American In Paris (Part 2),” 13 November 2015, and “Something Rotten! 1,” 11 May 2106)

Falsettos was created by combining the second and third of a trio of one-act musicals. The first of the three, In Trousers, entirely written by William Finn, premiered in 1979 at Playwrights Horizons and introduced the character of Marvin, a man who comes to realize that he is gay and ultimately leaves his wife and young son.

Mr. Finn collaborated on the books of the next two musicals with James Lapine, who directed them. The story of In Trousers leads to that of March of the Falsettos (premiering in 1981, also at Playwrights), which finds Marvin trying desperately to discover or create some kind of viable family amid the chaos of his relationships with his ex-wife (Trina), his current lover (Whizzer), his son (Jason), and his psychiatrist, who is also Trina’s psychiatrist and who falls in love with and marries her.

By the end of the show Marvin has left Whizzer but has achieved some rapport with Jason. March of the Falsettos becomes Act I of the musical Falsettos.

Act II of Falsettos is the third of the one-act plays, Falsettoland (premiering in 1990 at Playwrights). In the course of this piece Marvin and Whizzer resume their relationship, while the family wrestles with the details of Jason’s bar mitzvah. Two more characters, a lesbian couple, join the fractured but real “family” scene: Dr. Charlotte, a medical doctor, and Cordelia, a caterer specializing in Kosher food.

The dates of these plays and of the combined work Falsettos, which opened at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway in 1992, are significant, because 1981 was the year of the first clinical diagnosis of AIDS (for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome; it is also known as HIV, for Human Immunodeficiency Virus), and by 1990 the brutal disease was ravaging the gay community, and, although not then acknowledged as such, was well on its way to terrorizing the entire world.

The AIDS epidemic was at its height when the various components of the musical first opened. AIDS is a looming presence in Falsettoland – Whizzer contacts the disease. There is no cure available for him (nor is there today; however, much progress has been made in controlling the disease). Dr. Charlotte treats him, and his painful death has the effect of bringing Marvin’s formal and informal family together in a real if uneasy kind of working truce.

Wisely or not, people take AIDS more for granted today, but Falsettos is valuable also as a family story, a quirky but significant one. The show has significant strengths beyond the historical: the family story; the sympathetic portrayal of varying kinds of sexual relationships, both homosexual and other; the meaty roles for the seven actors; and the sizzling score by William Finn, who writes songs that sound like conversation that has somehow been nuzzled into musical form.

The seven characters I have identified are the only ones in the play, a remarkably small size for a cast of a Broadway musical, but then the show originated off-Broadway, where small musicals are more common, and almost all of Mr. Finn’s creations have opened off-Broadway.

His other shows include A New Brain (1998), an autobiographical account of his experience with brain surgery, and the song cycle Elegies (2003). His writing tends to be autobiographical, although this was not the case with his delightful The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005).

So, to the 2016 Broadway production of Falsettos: the acting did not disappoint. Not just Uranowitz and Borle, but the entire cast, are wonderful. The show stopping number of the musical is “Trina’s Song,” performed with mountingly manic energy by Stephanie J. Block in the role of Marvin’s ex-wife.

I was charmed by the lesbian couple played by a businesslike Tracie Thoms (Dr. Charlotte) and an exuberant Betsy Wolfe (Cordelia, the caterer). Anthony Rosenthal (Jason) is a match for the older cast members, and Andrew Rannells is just right for the role of Whizzer, who must come across as both sketchy and valuable.

And yet, and yet… the production left me with an unsatisfied feeling. I have only seen it once before, in a community theater production that presented the material realistically. The current version has a divided personality. The acting is realistic; but the production, with James Lapine returning as director, is remarkably abstract.

When the audience enters, it sees a bare stage with a huge gray cube in the center, like a giant irregular construction by Rubik. The audience certainly anticipates that the cube will be taken apart and used as furniture and other set elements, and that’s what happens, very ingeniously. (The set, by David Rockwell, is beautifully augmented by Jeff Croiter’s lighting).

As a result there are no pauses between scenes; also as a result, however, the actors are continually moving blocks around, which however smoothly choreographed nevertheless continually pulls the audience out of the play as it watches the gray geometric shapes being rearranged by actors looking to make sure they set their pieces exactly on their “spike marks” on the stage floor.

I attended the show with a friend who genuinely did not like this approach. “I don’t come to Broadway to see off-Broadway shows,” my friend said, “but I may want to hire this cast when I’m ready to move.”  I’m not sure there’s not something to her remark.

Put in its simplest form, she wants sets that appear to move by themselves! She referred to this production as a “black box show,” that is, a studio theater presentation rather than a Broadway show. Perhaps her attitude is a little extreme, but if there’s strength in a typical Broadway show, surely one element is the audience’s satisfaction when a play is surrounded by an environment that embraces it.

One thinks on the other hand of productions like the director John Doyle’s 2005 and 2006 productions of Sweeney Todd and Company respectively, in which the actors both performed their roles and played musical instruments. That and similar approaches are clever, but do they really serve the play, or do they pull our focus out of it? Is the play the thing, or do we leave mostly thinking that that director really is a clever fellow?

Lapine doesn’t go to extremes in Falsettos, but his directorial hand shows in every moment of the play, which is so thoroughly directed that the actors come to seem like marionettes – so much so that when in the song “March of the Falsettos” the cast actually act like marionettes, the concept of the number doesn’t seem particularly startling.

In the second act, in particular, it seems to me that this approach does not serve the play, robbing it of a good deal of the emotion necessary for us to understand how the new ad hoc family is finally able to coalesce. When Marvin and Whizzer stand face to face and sing “What Would I Do?” practically down each other’s throats, for the entire song, it seems to me that the staging almost combats the emotion of the scene. Borle’s and Rannells’ acting is strong enough to prevail; but should they be put in that position?

Lapine “puts people in positions” throughout the entire production. He is a clever and imaginative director; but I still left the theater feeling I’d seen a display, rather than a story. The cast has been hard at work; but for me the aftertaste that’s left is the effort, not the people.

I might well be accused of inconsistency here: in my recent article “A Note About Hamilton” (6 December 2016) on this blog, I championed productions in which a director invents what I call a “new theatrical language” for the piece.

That is emphatically not what Lapine does in Falsettos. Nothing in his staging is “transformative.” Using blocks instead of furniture has been a theatrical staple for decades. Virtually every director wants to “physicalize” the action of a play. Lapine does both, but to the extent that the result feels like busywork, falling far short of what in the Hamilton piece I call a Bright Idea – not giving the play a different locational concept, just making it hyperactive.

Most of the reviews that I have read do not focus on Lapine’s direction at all. Falsettos generally received positive reviews, led by Christopher Isherwood in The New York Times (27 October 2016), who wrote that “there’s hardly a moment in the exhilarating, devastating revival of the musical “Falsettos” that doesn’t approach, or even achieve, perfection.”

High praise indeed. Where reviewers had reservations, they tended to be about two things. One involves the issues of whether or not the play accurately portrays gays and Jews. (I was taken aback by the vitriol of Hilton Als’ New Yorker review of 7 November 2016 – “hideously cheap sentiment . . . one of the most dishonest musicals I have ever seen.”) I have no competence to answer such questions.

The other reservations tended to be about the set design. Isherwood’s review typifies the praise:

David Rockwell’s set resembles a child’s building blocks, which are manipulated by the actors. Placed against a shifting Manhattan skyscape, it’s an ingenious illustration of what we are watching: people laboring to arrange a comfortable life for themselves and their loved ones, and continually having to readjust it.
The reservations may be represented by Alexis Soloski’s review in The Guardian (27 October 2016):

The set, by David Rockwell, with its chintzy cutouts of the Manhattan skyline and peculiar cube of furniture, is one of the ugliest to galumph onto the stage in recent years.
Christopher Kelly, in the Newark Star-Ledger (27 October 2016), is no kinder:

The set design . . . mostly consists of what appears to be a rubber foam cube, made up of many pieces that are removed from the cube and used as furniture or props. More than once, you worry the pieces of cube are going to fall on someone's head.
Actually, you do, sometimes. On the other hand, the use of the component pieces is consistently clever, a real triumph of engineering. But the important point is that a set designer’s work must reflect the director’s approach to the play; the set is not an equal among equals, but one component in an overall approach that’s coordinated by the director (or should be). Whether it’s “attractive” or “ugly” is fundamentally irrelevant; the important question is how well it serves the play.

To my mind the Falsettos set illustrates what I see as Lepine’s desire to tinker with the show, as though he were trying to include in the new production all the possibilities he’d thought of since the first Broadway production opened in 1992.

Isherwood says that Lepine’s “work is so sharp it’s as if he were seeing the show with a new pair of eyes.” Yes, but is that what the show should be about? Christopher Kelly, in the Star-Ledger, comes a little closer to my opinion, referring to “sometimes awkward staging” and saying:

Lapine directed this revival, just as he did the 1992 Broadway original -- and my guess is that "Falsettos" ultimately needed someone not quite so close to the material to make it resonate fully with a contemporary audience.

We are blessed these days with a number of outstandingly talented directors, and James Lapine is one of them. The risk involved in all that talent is that directors may come to feel their job is to make the production “go” or “work.” The script and the actors do that – or it doesn’t get done.

If our primary impression of a show is that the director put a lot of effort into it, surely that’s not a mark of success but of failure – at least, of failure to respect the play being produced. That’s a subjective judgment, no doubt about it, but it’s one we need to make.

[Kirk’s remark about reviews not saying much about Lapine's directing is a truth about most reviews in general.  Directing usually gets short shrift (except for comments about pacing occasionally).  I think the reason for that is that few reviewers (or anyone else, really) understand what directors do.  I once edited the newsletter for an organization (now unfortunately defunct) called the American Directors Institute that was formed for that very reason: that most people—not just lay people, but theater pros as well (including reviewers)—don’t know what directors actually do beyond moving actors around the stage.  ADI’s mission was to try to introduce directing to the public through panels and conferences—and Directors Notes, its newsletter.  (Geoffrey Shlaes, ADI’s artistic director, once approached renowned theater critic, editor, writer, and historian Eric Bentley to be the keynoter for one of ADI’s conferences, and he disparaged directors as unnecessary.)  Anyway, reviewers can't very well criticize directing if they don't know what it is, can they?]

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