Maybe there should be a Hippocratic Oath for musicals. “First do no harm.” On those terms, The Thing About Men gets a passing grade that might not be granted to some of its larger and noisier Broadway colleagues. The intimate, five-character show—the first new musical in ages, if we exclude Dance of the Vampires, to be based on a non-American film—has the merit of being thoroughly harmless. It works out its cute and not particularly plausible little story in reasonably efficient form, getting a few mild laughs and scoring a few mildly effective emotional points along the way. Its lyrics rhyme, and rarely seem to be scrambling for metrical ingenuities or coasting on borrowed phrases; its music, though not particularly memorable, is spun out in a smooth and intelligently developed manner; the people in its cast are all likable and good at what they do. There are no great flashes of wit or waves of feeling, but there are also no grating disasters or lapses into incompetence. The people who made this show know their business; they just don’t approach it with any particular inspiration.
Tom (Marc Kudisch), a hotshot ad exec, finds out that his wife, Lucy (Leah Hocking), is having an affair with an East Village artist-type named Sebastian (Ron Bohmer), who happens to need a new roommate. Vacating suburbia, Tom moves in with Sebastian under an assumed name, hoping to destroy either the affair or Sebastian. Instead, the two men strike up an outré bond that changes all three lives; the end pays lip service to old-fashioned domestic virtues, but in a smilingly ironic fashion. Not having seen Doris Dörrie’s 1985 film, I can only guess that this material was probably treated a tad more harshly, and with enough realistic detail to make it at least slightly believable. Isolating the principals on a largely bare stage, accessorized chiefly by Elaine J. McCarthy’s lively back-wall projections, the musical, at least as staged by Mark Clements, tends to make Tom’s secret so obvious that you wonder why Sebastian doesn’t catch on, resulting in a loss of respect for him that makes the end as predictable as it is unlikely. And the cursory sketching of the two men’s social contexts makes it all seem to be taking place on some distant planet. (Tom and Lucy’s two sons are barely even offstage presences, though children are usually key arguing points in marital strife.)
There’s a place for work with no harm content: It fills the space when inspiration is generally low, as it is in the theater’s current phase, and it does so without muddling the issues or driving out works of better quality. All that has to happen is for such works to come along, and the public will know what it likes. Far more dangerous are the idiot pieces that cheapen not only public taste (which is always cheap by definition where popular entertainment’s concerned) but the public’s expectations; works that follow a different path are always welcome. The Thing About Men tries to divert the audience by alternately commenting on the characters and drawing them out so we can share their feelings—a great relief, mostly, from musicals that turn every event or feeling into an anthem with which to browbeat you. Thin as they are, the characters don’t bear much comment, and the feelings they’ve been provided with are not at the deep end of the world’s emotional pool, but the relief is palpable just the same. Only in the area of musical execution—the weakest side of musical theater in this age of pop—does the show fall down. The amplification, absurd anyway in a space as small as the Promenade, sounds tackily overdone as well as gratuitous, and the three leads have all been encouraged to yell when the music rises in intensity, with particularly awful effect on Kudisch’s normally sumptuous voice.
Kudisch is, however, an appealing comic actor, Bohmer offers him elegant contrast, and Hocking’s sweetly frank, apple-pandowdy sexuality makes a perfect pivot for their struts and frets. The multiple supporting roles are all handled with panache by Daniel Reichardt, the saving grace of last year’s Radiant Baby, and Jennifer Simard, a newcomer with an intriguingly acid style. The result’s never torture to sit through; you just keep wishing it were better. For torture, one has to turn to events like Robert Wilson’s staging of Strindberg’s A Dream Play, lately championed by John Rockwell in the Times as “revealing,” presumably the word his SpellCheck substituted when he mistyped “irrelevant.” The rest of Rockwell’s article was devoted to attacking my views on directing, mostly by pointing out how much he agrees with them. Of course directing should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; it’s when the cases are identically lethal that you learn who the serial killers are. I like Robert Wilson’s personal fantasy trips; it’s his having them at the expense of plays by greater minds, which he doesn’t care two pins about, that turns them into a racket. But surely the Times, which hasn’t had a qualified drama critic since Stanley Kauffmann left, is no place to discuss the matter.