Pro & Con Artists


Some people never overcome their suspicion of art. To them, all artists are scam artists, trying to put something over on a public that neither wants nor needs any of it. Not that the Puritans, who opened this particular can of inartistic worms for us, were wholly mistaken. Art is always doing something other than what it says it’s doing; the skeptic’s mistake is to see this other as taking place instead of, rather than in addition to, what’s on the surface. Far from trying to swindle you, art is the shell game that offers an extra pea under every shell, if you know how to look for it.

It’s no accident, anyway—to get out of these tangled musings—that the theater’s always been fascinated by con artists, from the sophistical reasoners who flimflam their way through Euripides and Aristophanes down to “Professor Harold Hill,” the hero of The Music Man. Unlike many of his predecessors, Hill is a softhearted phony suitable for musicalizing, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. We know he’s going to turn this stiff-lipped Iowa town around, and we know the town’s piano teacher cum librarian is going to turn him around; only a born husband would brag this much about his imperviousness to female snares. The force that does the turning is music, the invisible merchandise this pseudo- traveling salesman travels in and the passion he shares with Marian the librarian. Accused by rival and friend alike of not knowing one note of music from another, Hill is nonetheless musically sensitive enough to know when four male voices constitute a barbershop quartet, patient enough to teach a bandful of kids to hum the “Minuet in G,” and wise enough to explain that “singing is just sustained talking.” Pretty good for a guy whose standard practice is to hightail it out of town the minute the uniforms arrive.

A Popular Front leftist who was “graylisted” in the early ’50s (the movies he scored include Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), Meredith Willson believed that music should be accessible to everybody. He also had the ’30s leftist commitment to preserving folk and popular forms in composition. Add the notion of sustained speech, and you get the wit of a score that’s built not only on the musical modes of 1910, with its anthems and marches and parlor ballads, but also, drolly, on the noises and rhythms of everyday life: pitched conversation over the rackety beat of train wheels, argumentative recitative over a piano student plinking thirds up the scale, a pattery counterpoint to “Goodnight, Ladies” out of the indignant clucking of town gossips. The script, drenched in period locutions to a degree far beyond simple quaintness, seems fresh and witty too, full of jokes whose very age gives them a gleaming patina of newness. Add a few hit tunes, two enchanting stars, knowing direction, and brilliant choreography, and you’ve got an old-style Broadway hit.

These last elements, as you probably suspected I was going to say, are only intermittently on view in Susan Stroman’s production. The hit tunes are still there, and the new orchestration, by Doug Besterman with dance music by David Krane, has electronified the score without curdling Willson’s creamy sound. What Stroman and her colleagues don’t do is invent a magically appealing version of small-town Iowa, circa 1912, and invite us to explore it. Instead, conscious of the work’s age and the need to glitz it up, they engage in a variety of standard Broadway ways of showing off, dashing back into that magical world whenever the material’s siren call is too enticing to resist, but never staying there for long.

When they do stay for a while, some fairly delightful things transpire. Rebecca Luker, with her Victorian-cameo features, is an ideal Marian, graceful and firm in acting the role, her voice secure and perfectly placed for singing it. Katherine McGrath as her matchmaking mother and Michael Phelan as her troubled kid brother are fine; Ruth Williamson, as the mayor’s haughty wife, is both funny and focused, not always the case with her. On the sadder but wiser side, Stroman hasn’t succeeded in making the quartet anything but four guys who bicker a lot and then sing together, and she’s misfired, badly, with Paul Benedict, who somehow manages to remove all comedy from Mayor Shinn’s verbal left turns, and with Max Casella, who makes Hill’s local sidekick a drab obstacle. One of Stroman’s really bad ideas is to have him, on the edge of the crowd, cuing the hero during “Trouble in River City,” as if the con man couldn’t remember his own spiel.

It’s a shame, because Craig Bierko, the Harold Hill, isn’t an actor for whom you want to lose respect. He’s clearly a nice guy, handsome, craggy-jawed and big-eyed, making up in solidity what he lacks in flair. The only problem is that Harold Hill is all flair; Robert Preston was ideal for the role, a beefily solid actor who sizzled across the stage in an electrical haze—he seemed to throw off sparks whenever he moved. Bierko, an engaging performer with relatively little stage experience, has neither Preston’s magnetism nor his finesse; nurtured in TV and film, he tends to play from the head—a common fault these days—and let the body go. But a musical is a physical event; talking heads don’t suffice.

If Stroman’s work were more physically specific, Bierko and everyone else would have an easier time of it. But my impression is that she tends to generalize except when she finds a prop gimmick like the tableware in the restaurant scene of Contact. Her numbers are lively, but not differentiated enough, or connected to their songs exactingly enough, to clinch the deal; the shortfall is especially noticeable in “Marian the Librarian,” which was Onna White’s masterpiece in the original, with its lines of people, noses buried in books, tiptoeing through the stacks. Stroman’s version, bouncy and acrobatic enough, is just a dance that happens to take place in a library.

Still, Stroman’s work overall is noninvasive; she lets the book and score work their old charm, while her company at its best adds a new pleasantness. At worst, you go away thinking that she meant well and that they did these things better in the old days. This, trust me, is a good deal more appealing than the thoughts you might have in your head coming from the Roundabout revival of Uncle Vanya. What’s that line in The Music Man about getting the beefsteak pounded? You can’t; director Michael Mayer borrowed the kitchen mallet, and he’s made his cast use it on every line of Chekhov’s tragicomedy. I’ve never seen a production of Vanya where the story was so easy to grasp and its emotional effect so wholly absent. Chekhov enjoyed putting his characters alternately in tragic and comic perspective, but he certainly never meant you to sit through four long acts watching them without an ounce of empathy.

Vanya is subtitled (though not in this version) “Scenes of Country Life,” and the rural estate where it takes place is both a source of the characters’ frustration and an atmospheric clue. Everything happens slower and a little more crudely than in the city; the equation of the country with certain kinds of low farce is carefully exploited, for decidedly unfarcical purposes. In the country, people throw off their city poses and reveal themselves, yet everyone in the play is a kind of con artist. Their tragedy—and comedy—is that they delude themselves most of all. Astrov knows that Yelena’s a useless and shallow person, but succumbs to her anyway; intending to resist him as easily as she has Vanya, Yelena is too bored—even with Sonya’s interests at heart—to do anything but lure Astrov on. Every situation in the play is like that: No one means any ill will, but everyone’s miserable, and only unpleasant or unfortunate things happen, till the uneasy household is broken up.

Shouty and one-dimensional in its playing, Mayer’s production is oddly schizoid in its elements: Half the house, in Tony Walton’s odd set, looks like a decaying clapboard mansion, the other half like a gigantic log cabin. The country people are all hopped-up and frantic, the city slickers sluggish. Despite the hot weather, Walton puts the country gentlemen in three-piece suits. The men, largely British, tend to base their roles on the nearest model in classical English theater: Brian Murray’s Serebryakov is a dyspeptic Sir Peter Teazle, Derek Jacobi’s Vanya an exceptionally loutish Hamlet. (Maybe he thinks he’s playing Ivanov, who has some links to Hamlet.) Roger Rees’s nerve-wracked Astrov, on the other hand, suggests an overworked corporate veep, while Laura Linney’s Yelena is pure farm wife, and Rita Gam must be planning to take over as The Music Man‘s Mrs. Shinn. Amy Ryan’s Sonya, often quite moving, and Anne Pitoniak’s simple, assured Marina are the only two people onstage who actually seem to belong in a farmhouse. And even they have to speak Mike Poulton’s mishmash of an adaptation, which makes elderly, illiterate servants refer to “the ravages of time.” Why does the Roundabout need to drag actors and scripts from London, when New York is full of artists who are Russian-born, Russian-speaking, or of Russian ancestry? Did Nazimova, Ouspenskaya, Michael Chekhov work and teach here for nothing? Of all the world’s theater traditions, the Chekhovian is surely the one we least need to borrow.

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