The New Group Births The Kid; the Mint and CSC Resurrect Dr. Knock and The Forest
The Kid is a pretty good new musical. Given the disheartening year our musical theater has just had, I wasn't sure I would ever write a sentence like that again. Least of all did I expect to write it during the period of collective exhaustion and dementia known as awards season.
I won't pretend, since its creators don't, that The Kid, presented by the New Group at Theatre Row, is anything more than the sweet, straightforward, relatively conventional pop musical it sets out to be. Based on Dan Savage's memoir about a same-sex couple's struggle to adopt a child, it tells a happy story, full of feel-good moments. Neither grotesque monsters nor paragons off a gay-rights poster, its characters are ordinary people, flawed but likeable. The show doesn't hide their flawed nature, doesn't chide those who think differently, and doesn't overinflate its subject. It just tells the story, letting the people sing when they need to. After weeks of musicals that mistake glitz for meaning and earache for effect, such simplicity is precious.
The Kid shows its fair-mindedness by refusing to assert that its less-than-perfect heroes will make optimal adoptive parents. The May-November coupling of Dan (Christopher Sieber), a sex columnist who loves showtunes, and Terry (Lucas Steele), a latte boy who can't drive anywhere without Björk playing full blast, doesn't suggest a maximally stable pair of dream parents. At times, they seem nearly as close to breakup as the riven gay couple in Next Fall. When, early on, Dan enumerates in song his reasons for wanting a kid, they're mostly about his own needs; he sees his offspring as "a fresh new face/To lay all our neuroses on."
Unpretty as that may sound, it has the merit of honesty; the show's creators have wisely taken that blunt hallmark of the real-life Dan Savage's column as their guideline. "You answer every question with honesty," the onstage Dan's readers sing to him in the opening number, and for the most part, what follows is about making Dan deal with his own questions the same way. Sieber, playing the role with his beer-gut pushed forward and an off-kilter smile crossing his worry-lined face, brings it exactly the right mix of qualities: His easy authority and diffident humor mask suppressed doubts that periodically seem to leap up and take over his whole being, in ways that are both comically absurd and endearing.
The evening leans, sometimes too heavily, on Sieber's Dan, narrator as well as protagonist, as its central pillar. We learn little enough about Steele's Terry, whose much smaller role evokes those given to patient wives in 1950s romantic comedies, distinctly "supporting." The lanky Steele, all high energy and sharp angles, sometimes seems to be searching for pathways out of this relative confinement, but the writers haven't supplied him any. They do better, and get better results, with five first-rate performers in secondary roles: Jeannine Frumess and Michael Wartella as the adoptee's birth parents, a determinedly homeless teenager and her drifter boyfriend; Susan Blackwell and Ann Harada, each playing, with carefully varied nuances, a series of cautiously sympathetic friends, bureaucrats, and others; and most of all, Jill Eikenberry, as Dan's mother.
Mothers always have a certain advantage in musicals. They traditionally know best, and often, as here, they also get the best song. Eikenberry adds to this her own extra assets: a silvery voice and sparkly personality, both seemingly undimmed by time; a canny technique that can slip an explosive depth charge of emotion into the most casually tossed-off line. Her second-act scene with Sieber, and the song it leads up to, "I Knew," mark the point at which The Kid nabs a small spot for itself in musical theater's magic land. The moment reveals, too, the show's real subject: not the child who arrives at the end, but the Wordsworthian one, father to the man, holding the prop infant in his arms.
Even rarer than good musicals, in New York these days, are plays of the kind the Mint and Classic Stage Company have just chosen to revive: major works by long-gone European authors of the second rank. We get little enough of our own literary heritage or England's; from continental Europe, if we get more than a few predictable titles each by Ibsen and Chekhov, it's practically a miracle. But Ibsen and Chekhov were not isolated accidents; they belonged to a stream of theatrical creativity that flowed through European life, contiguous with and often overflowing into poetry and fiction. Jules Romains (1885–1972), though barely remembered today, was already a world-famous novelist when he wrote Dr. Knock, or The Triumph of Medicine (Mint) in 1923. However unknown to us, Alexander Ostrovsky (1823–1886) laid the foundation stones of the Russian theater we do know with plays like his rueful 1871 comedy, The Forest (CSC).
The Mint got the luckier draw. Knock (Tom Hammond), Romains's hero, is that droll but disquieting modern prototype, the sharpie who is also a visionary, a con artist who believes his own con. Rooked in the purchase of a rural practice where the healthy peasantry barely notice their doctor, Knock uses a mixture of scientific truth and scare tactics to turn his clientele into overmedicated hypochondriacs. Director Gus Kaikkonen's adaptation, barring only a few minor slips of tone, points the play's witty pertinence for today's world without hammering. He gets sturdy, if unspectacular, results from his cast, notably Jennifer Harmon and Patti Perkins in several roles each.
Harder to bring off, The Forest also suffers from Kathleen Tolan's erratic, tonally muddled adaptation. In this bitter-tinged romantic comedy, a rich widow's knotted-up lech for a much younger man gets disentangled through the connivances of a shabby strolling player. Director Brian Kulick's comic sense is too coarse to keep up with the play's sly shifts; Dianne Wiest and John Douglas Thompson, as widow and traveling tragedian respectively, have to do much heavy lifting to keep the comedy aloft. Still, this pre-Chekhov picture of Russian country life bears scrutiny. More rarities, please.
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