Grave Occasions


Like their way of life, the characters in Our Town are all dead. Thornton Wilder probably wasn’t thinking of vampire movies—though he must have been thinking of movies, or why would the town gossip be named Louella?—but I was as I watched the Westport Country Playhouse’s revival. Broadway is a welcoming venue for Death just now, what with new pieces that often seem dead on arrival, and old works being hauled up for “revival” (not the same as a living repertoire of plays from the past), with the unsightly blotches of the undertakers’ tarting-up visible all over them.

Wilder’s play, still alive and vivid, isn’t one of them, at least not in James Naughton’s production, despite some gratuitous frills from set designer Tony Walton. The actors, on whom it rests, are mostly good enough, and in several cases better. The only jarring note is sounded by Jane Curtin, whose voice makes you wonder why Editor Webb married some doxy he picked up in a Coney Island beer parlor. Everyone else sounds, if not New Hampshire, at least northwestern Connecticut. Jayne Atkinson magically turns Mrs. Gibbs’s sickliness and disappointment into sources of acting strength; Maggie Lacey’s Emily, sweet and strong-headed, stumbles only in the two or three spots where Wilder compels his ingenue to be the play’s resident philosopher. The cast’s biggest surprise is Jeffrey DeMunn, who is always first-rate but has rarely been thought of as funny; as Editor Webb jumpily confronting his daughter’s bridegroom over breakfast, he rocks the house with laughs not often heard in a script that decades of community-theater stagings have coated with a sanctimony more suitable for Holy Writ.

But Our Town is really an extended aria for the Stage Manager, who is both conductor and soloist of the performance, both author and director of the event we watch. I don’t mean that he speaks for Wilder, who surely knew those Spanish autos sacramentales in which the stage direction “Entrada el Autor” refers to the One to whom all rights revert in the end. The Stage Manager doesn’t claim to understand life, but is fairly peremptory, almost curt, in presenting it. And the life Wilder lets him show us is trivial, pleasant, and distinctly oversimplified for stage consumption. Listen closely, and its carefully selected omissions and peculiarities are bound to put you on your guard. The impulse to view the play sentimentally, massively indulged in by the popular mind, won’t wash; those questioners in the audience have it right, no matter how dismissive the Stage Manager is to them. There’s something wrong with a view of small-town life in which the working class has no effective existence. And how about a New England town, circa 1903, that never heard of Shakespeare, and has no “opera house” for touring shows? And how about a town of 3000 with not a single domestic servant in sight, not even on a wedding day? Who does Wilder think he’s kidding?

For him, you might say, God is in the deletion of details; the selectivity emphasizes his point about the speedy way life vanishes, both as we live it and from our memory. No doubt he enjoyed the slightly malicious joke of leaning on feel-good aspects of small-town life and brushing away the rest. The nostalgic sweetness is the sugar on the bitter pill he offers, which is the old news that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and that even in the slowest rural towns it goes by too quickly for us to relish its good parts, after which we die, usually too soon. The tendency to forget the play’s less pleasant aspects from revival to revival only enhances the joke’s malice. Who remembers that the Webbs outlive both of their children?

How emphatically the somber point is enforced depends on how the Stage Manager is played, and here Naughton’s production offers its strongest asset: a real star. Not that Paul Newman is merely displaying his personality. On the contrary, he shows his stardom by hewing to the role firmly, pouring his powerful presence into it and thereby holding the evening together. Where most Stage Managers are either too grim or too sociably avuncular, Newman strikes the exact balance of friendliness and firmness. He reminded me of how Mary McCarthy described Frank Craven in the original production: “He gives the nostalgia full play, but cuts you off sharply the instant you begin to blubber about it.”

The weeping is occasionally cut short at La Boheme, too, though for more inartistic reasons, like the hype and eccentricity that infuse what’s basically a well-meaning and conventional little event. The idea of making this opera about young love and early death more accessible to a youthful audience by means of an updated setting and attractive young singers is perfectly valid—and virtually every opera house in America has tried it, in some cases probably even with jazzed-up supertitles or an electronically enhanced orchestra. By itself this does nothing to make opera viable for newcomers; to do that would require a big increase in music education and a proportionally big decrease in student ticket prices. Neither is exactly high on Broadway’s agenda. When Baz Luhrman devotes his royalties to founding opera workshops in ghetto schools, we’ll believe his grandiose claims; till then they’re just another marketing ploy.

Meantime, the result is an OK production of La Boheme, with little surprise beyond the grinding pauses for set changes. Putting the story in the late 1950s—which, Luhrmanized, look more like the shopping-mall ’80s—reveals nothing about it, in fact making some of the characters’ behavior seem altogether odd. (People in 1957 Paris didn’t light their way upstairs with candles.) And having poor Mimi schlepp all the way to the Belgian border to find Marcello is like relocating an opera about Manhattanites from Washington Heights to Niagara Falls. But it’s no stranger than having the four bohemians live in what’s apparently a rooftop greenhouse, behind a large red neon sign advertising something called L’amour (presumably not Michel Legrand’s recent flop). What Mimi’s doing up there we’ll never know.

Far from reinterpreting Boheme, Luhrman’s simply gussied it up in mass-market retro-chic, leaving its substance untouched. The physical business is lively and often well executed, but none of the relationships have been re-examined; the opera doesn’t mean anything it didn’t mean before. And the fake-hip titles are often an obstacle to the musical sense: “Hang out with us” doesn’t convey the comically elegant formality of the phrase Marcello sings when he invites Benoit to “resti un momento in nostra compagnia.” For an audience that doesn’t know Boheme, sung translation beats supertitles: Hearing how music heightens words is the essence of opera as drama.

Luhrman’s chief advantage is simply that his international stature and movie money allow him to sift through a worldful of young singers for his troupe. He’s found some choice artists. In the two casts I heard, David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva were a vocally rich Rodolfo and Mimi; Alfred Boe and Wei Huang, both of whom tended to force their upper ranges, acted the roles more movingly. Chloe Wright was a mellifluous Musetta; Ben Davis, model-handsome, made a dapper, bright-voiced Marcello, but Eugene Brancoveanu’s offered darker tones and more intense stage presence. Daniel Webb and Daniel Okulitch, the excellent Colline and Schaunard, cut markedly livelier figures in the Miller-Solovyeva cast. Constantine Kitsopoulos conducted, not ineffectively. Does New York need a long-run commercial Boheme to go with the opera houses and music schools we already have? Probably not. But why shouldn’t Puccini have a Tony? I mean, Borodin got one for Kismet.

Whatever Tonys Boheme qualifies for, its competition probably won’t be Dance of the Vampires, which is several bad ideas rolled into none. Spoofing a genre that’s long since been exploited and burlesqued to death was already a chancy business when Roman Polanski made his sourly amusing film The Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967. Musicalizing Polanski’s uneasy tone would tax the craft of a Sondheim. Jim Steinman and Michael Kunze apparently settled for dimwitted rock noise (European audiences must be desperate for musical entertainment). Trying to push a little wit into the mix, co-librettist David Ives and director John Rando have only turned an ugly mess into a confused ugly mess. The plot’s countless arteries lead nowhere; the undead mostly prefer disco dancing to bloodsucking; the living know all the rules of fighting vampires but can’t stick to them for more than two seconds. The show’s one genuinely comic feature is the slow slippage of star Michael Crawford’s “Sicilian” accent into Cockney; its one truly scary phenomenon is ingenue Mandy Gonzalez’s top range. Quick, Van Helsing, the stake and hammer.