Past Imagining

David Esbjornson directed, intelligently, by which I mean that Seldes and Murray are always in command yet never in excess. The play's sense, its inspired nonsense, and its uninspired padding are all allowed to come through uninjured. Kathleen Early and David Burtka, as Girl and Boy, make these emptily corporeal figures touching as well as decorative. Kenneth Posner's sympathetic lighting enhances both the performances and John Arnone's dryly witty set, a sort of Whitney Biennial of magnified baby supplies, dominated sardonically by a giant pacifier—exactly what the play isn't.


Time and Again, in contrast, couldn't be more pacific. The authors have tried very hard to preserve Jack Finney's story, have put as much pleasantness as they could into its retelling, and in doing so have missed the point: The antique engravings scattered through Finney's novel are both the book's fun and its seals of authenticity, the source of the playful charm that keeps enlarging its cult of devoted readers. The stage has no equivalents for these touchstones of the tangible New York past that Finney's hero struggles to reshape. Or if it has, the adaptors haven't found them. Anybody can come out on stage and announce that he's traveling through time; making us believe it is another matter. The problem's intensified by the show's habit of sticking within our musical theater's all too standardized limits, where 1882 equals ragtime, which wasn't the case, really, among even tenuously respectable white New Yorkers. Stuck with a less than convincing set of illusions and a less than historical vocabulary in which to express them, the writers do their best, but the result is rarely more than an honorable defeat. Walter Edgar Kennon used to bill himself as Skip Kennon, and at times his music still skips blithely along, especially in a cheerful chunk of three-part counterpoint, but too often it merely walter-edgars its placid way through the script, which is wordy without verbal fun and data-laden without telling details.

Seldes and Burtka play Albee: baby talk.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Seldes and Burtka play Albee: baby talk.

Details

The Play About the Baby
By Edward Albee
Century Center
111 East 15th Street 212-239-6200

Time and Again
By Jack Viertel and James Hart,
music and lyrics by Walter Edgar Kennon,
based on the book by Jack Finney
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street 212-581-1212

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With such shaky stuff, what's a director to do? Susan H. Schulman seems to have chiefly concentrated on helping her actors find whatever life they can in the material, while moving it along at a steady clip. In those departments, she gets good results: Lewis Cleale makes an appealingly hangdog hero, Laura Benanti turns his 1882 flame into a figure of complex pathos, and Julia Murney gets the sharp edge of her modern-day rival without the sharp vocal edges that have made me resist her previous performances. Since the cast also includes Patricia Kilgarriff, Lauren Ward, Melissa Rain Anderson, David McCallum, and Joseph Kolinski (who gets the best song), Time and Again clearly ought to blaze much brighter. Even while pressing the pace, Schulman isn't afraid to pause for contemplation, but in compressing the novel's magical lost world, the writers have left her almost nothing to contemplate. With appropriate if unconscious irony, Time and Again is the only musical I can think of with a title number that gets the show's title wrong, constantly singing, "Time and time again," as if its intention were to drag us down instead of charging us up.

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