I suppose I'm too demanding. All through Next to Normal, the new musical at Second Stage, I kept wondering what it would be like if it had been directed and designed by the people who carried out those tasks for the new musical I'd seen two nights earlier at the Vineyard, bearing the preposterous title The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower). But I also couldn't help wondering what Slug Bearers would have been like with a score by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, Next to Normal's librettist-composer team. I'm probably just being, as usual, impossible to please. The obvious truth—which a less kvetchy critic would accept more readily—is that both shows have very strong virtues and should be praised for what they are, shortcomings notwithstanding. They can't very well become each other; though they have certain kinships, an impassible stylistic gulf separates them.
Ironically, Slug Bearers, the show with the resolutely unmarketable title, is likely to prove the more commercially viable of the two. In a money-based theater saturated with recycled properties, nothing's more refreshingly piquant than a piece of downtown eccentricity with a deadpan screw-you attitude and a determinedly capricious insistence on doing things its own playful way. While filling that bill, Slug Bearers also, gratifyingly, outclasses it in brains and artistry. On its own terms, the show's complete; you never feel it's using its posture of being "different" as an excuse for self-indulgence or slipshod work.
The central creative force behind its difference is cartoonist Ben Katchor, whose work used to run in this paper. Katchor has provided what you might call the comic book for Slug Bearers, meaning not only the spoken text and song lyrics but the drawings that its design team (set and projection designers Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, costume designer Mattie Ullrich) has turned into one of the more astonishing environments ever to occupy a New York stage. Designers have played two-dimensional elements, cartooning included, against the theater's innate three-dimensionality for aeons. In the '60s and '70s, designer Robert Randolph virtually specialized in cartoon sets for demi-satirical shows about urban life, like How to Succeed and Skyscraper. But advancing technology has given cartoonist-designers an unexpected tool: depth. The 3-D folk who stalk through Slug Bearers' maze of sliding, sometimes translucent projection screens—unerringly picked out among Katchor's drolly drawn doorways and furnishings by Russell Champa's tight-focused lighting—look absolutely at home in this eerily cheery pastel flatland. When you consider that they include familiar Broadway figures like Peter Friedman, Bobby Steggert, and Stephen Lee Anderson, of a breed accustomed to "taking stage" flamboyantly, director Bob McGrath's achievement in harmonizing his disparate resources becomes even more impressive.
The drawback, though, is built into the delight. Katchor's artistry lives in comic-book land: It can touch on any number of deeper realities but can never delve deeply into them; its impassive flatness keeps it floating enchantingly, but also noncommitally, free. In Slug Bearers' story, Dr. Rushower (Friedman), a fabulously wealthy electrolysist turned philanthropist, expresses his zest for life by meeting people randomly. He introduces the eligible younger men among them, like Immanuel Lubang (Steggert), to his sheltered, restless daughter, GinGin (Jody Flader). Lubang has a distinctly downtownish preoccupation with the "found" prose poetry of outdated small-appliance instruction manuals; GinGin grieves over the newsmaking plight of the title's Third World proles, who live by transporting the lead weights ("slugs") used by manufacturers to give heft to such appliances. Can Immanuel's manuals save the slug bearers' souls? Can GinGin rescue them from the sinister George Klatter (Andrews), whose multinational firm exploits them? Will Lubang and GinGin make a good match?
Such is the story Slug Bearers tells, in its comically half-hearted way, underscored by Mark Mulcahy's cheerfully deadpan, quasi-minimalist music, a sort of extended rock arioso in constantly shifting patterns, the tunes of which peter out with the same diffident, smiling shrug as the plot's dramatic twists. The event is delicious, even exhilarating, but the exhilaration comes from being gracefully let down where you're used to being shoved and harried into excitement. How far such delight can carry Slug Bearers' whimsical irony remains to be seen—as does whether the show's lackadaisical approach to narrative and character can affect, in any lasting way, a form of theater based on dramatic storytelling and the human physical or emotional expressions it empowers. The big frenzied dances and lung-bursting solo numbers that normally stop the show in a musical are not part of Slug Bearers's cunning but low-key bag of tricks.
That's why I'd be intrigued to see Katchor and McGrath tackle Next to Normal, which uses rock to inject drive and flash into a suburban dysfunctional-family tale, told in an oversimplified fashion with its own affinity to comic books. The approach makes much of Yorkey's script seem either insufficiently grounded or suspiciously glib —especially given the spiffy dramaturgical trick it pulls on us midway through Act I—but also keeps it punchily effective. The comic-book sensibility's displayed openly when 16-year-old Jennifer Damiano, giving a dynamite performance as the family's overachieving daughter, slings out one of Yorkey and Kitt's better songs, "Superboy and the Invisible Girl."
Because Next to Normal leaves lots of icky questions (hard to describe without spoiling that first-act surprise) unexplored on its way from horrific family mess to partial cure, it doesn't move or inspire you as it ostentatiously hopes to. Michael Greif's direction marshals excellent performances from his six-person cast—in addition to Damiano, Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley do towering work as the troubled parents—but he also seems to be pushing the material further than its abstractness will go. As a case history, it lacks data; as a drama, it lacks depth. But with such strong performances, and writing so skillful on the streamlined surface, you can't help wishing it well—or wondering how it might look tucked in among the deadpan ironies of Katchor's flat-panel world.
Applause, the 1970 musicalization of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's cinema-classic, backstage backbiter, All About Eve, belongs there, too. At least it seemed to in the tired-ish, flattish staged concert that City Center Encores! gave it under Kathleen Marshall's direction. Christine Ebersole, hampered by flu and a hideous wig, made Margo Channing feisty but unalluring; Erin Davie made an unexpectedly pallid Eve. Kate Burton, Chip Zien, and a blessedly low-key Mario Cantone did well in lesser roles, and Marshall as choreographer had some good '70s-disco fun with "But Alive." Still, the pancake-flat fact remained: Applause, a flawed and mediocre show to start with, was a weak choice for revival. Even Katchor and McGrath probably couldn't imbue it with much comic-book magic.
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