The British expression “too clever by half” comes to mind when I contemplate the remarkable talents of writer-composer Michael John LaChiusa. Not that I mean to convey any accusation of fraudulence; it’s simply that LaChiusa’s tremendous fecundity of invention often runs way ahead of his ability to ground his work in reality. Hence the second-act letdown of LaChiusa’s new multipart work See What I Wanna See. So many things happen, so many intense emotions (as well as words and notes) are rattled through in the evening’s taut two hours that after the first half you feel shaken up and exhilarated, which is fine, while the second half leaves you stranded in puzzled suspicion rather than moved. Racing through three quite different stories (one of them in two contrasting versions) at such a degree of excitement, LaChiusa ultimately outpaces not only his audience, but the substance of his material. Everything’s told to us so rapidly that we can barely feel it happening, which reduces not only our pleasure, but our chance of absorbing what, if anything, LaChiusa’s wildly divergent two main stories have to do with one another. Rich with ingenuity, talent, color, and intelligence, the evening is a too-much that ends up feeling like a not-enough.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s famous short story “In a Grove,” out of which Akira Kurosawa made his even more celebrated movie, Rashomon, offers a fertile source and a strong matrix for LaChiusa, dealing as it does with a situation in which narration, or, rather, the narrator’s point of view, is literally everything. A crime has been committed, and the four people involved—a bandit, a wealthy merchant and his beautiful wife, and one lowly witness—are made to tell their versions of what happened. The woman has been sexually dishonored and the merchant killed; his version of the story comes through a spirit medium. Was the sexual act rape, seduction, or compliance? Was the rich man’s death suicide, or murder, and if the latter, by whom? And where is the knife that killed him? Packed with excitement, the story in any treatment is like a tiny gemstone, its multiple facets revealing new meanings as each character’s interpretation gets told.
LaChiusa sets his rendering of the story, “R Shomon,” in early-1950s Manhattan, on the opening night of Kurosawa’s film, through which the characters are linked: The young tough (Aaron Lohr) sees the wealthy couple (Idina Menzel and Marc Kudisch) coming out of the movie; the witness to the crime, by a stretch of coincidence, is the theater’s janitor (Henry Stram), who has caused the titular anomaly by leaving an A off the marquee. LaChiusa’s tight-knit composition, with its feverishly racing, New Yorkily compulsive streams of words, is the strongest single piece of music theater he has yet made. He commits two unwise glitches, at the start and end of the story: He invents an elaborate, less than convincing relationship to bring the tough and the wealthy couple together in the darkness of Central Park; and when he gets to the dead man’s version of what occurred, he shifts focus, with awkward uncertainty, between the medium and the spirit speaking through her. The latter muddle, compounded by Ted Sperling’s suddenly ineffective staging, is frustrating because the two performers involved, Mary Testa and Kudisch, are the evening’s strongest presences. They both deserve a great role (Testa’s entrance as the flat-footed, harsh-voiced medium is a high point), and one can see why LaChiusa couldn’t decide which to concentrate on. But the bulk of Sperling’s staging for “R Shomon,” on a largely bare stage, with the varied scenes evoked by Christopher Akerlind’s sharply defined, film-noirish lights, is as solid as LaChiusa’s writing, hurtling by with such speed that, if it doesn’t make you ponder the nature of reality, at least makes you feel close to it.
Something far less like reality, or Akutagawa, unfortunately takes up most of the second act. “Gloryday,” LaChiusa’s own meditation on seeing as believing, deals with a priest (Stram) who has lost his faith after 9-11. For inexplicable reasons, he decides to announce that a miracle will occur in Central Park, and so finds himself in interactions with a set of conventional, cartoon-like characters (a Hollywood starlet on the skids, a skeptical TV newscaster, a CPA who has dropped out into homelessness) who, like the rest of the giant crowd that gathers, at first are willing to believe and then aren’t, while the priest himself, having allegedly invented the stunt to show that miracles are frauds, actually experiences something, though we never find out what. Thin and rarely convincing, despite a few effective moments, the piece looks both pallid and simplistic after the two Akutagawa stories, those wryly concocted steel traps for any smug assumptions we might have about human nature. It’s telling that the best single thing in “Glory- day” is Testa’s rendition of a song that flatly contradicts everything LaChiusa’s told us about her character, an elderly Communist-atheist who suddenly announces her faith in miracles. So the evening that starts by confirming LaChiusa’s genuine power as a music dramatist ends by revealing him, when he works with lesser material, as dangerously close to being just another hokum peddler in a world already oversupplied with hokum. Too clever, as they say, by half.