It’s always the best and worst of times simultaneously. Human beings could make any time the best, but somehow they never do. Instead of setting their minds to work in the here and now, they’re always trying to relive what somebody else already did. At least, that’s how things seem to be in the theater these days: Shows that aren’t overt attempts to reanimate old movies all strive, covertly or unconsciously, to re-enact other artists’ old theater events. Just in time for our grim new economic condition, we’re facing an era of lowered aesthetic expectations, too.
That lowering doesn’t include attempting to give a classic story fresh life, something artists have always done. The problem with the new Broadway musical of A Tale of Two Cities isn’t its devotion to Charles Dickens, but its awareness that others made millions from a musical based on Victor Hugo. Call this one Les-mini-Miz. The moment two rickety-looking multistory towers roll onstage at the start, we know we’re not in Dickens’s or anyone else’s Paris; we’re in John Napier’s set for that other show, only with its Nevelsonian accessories stripped away to minimize the similarity. Far from evoking London or Paris, Two Cities evokes only its predecessors in the genre. Warren Carlyle’s direction, so busy striving to make spectacle that it often fails to make sense, flattens down its acting style till you can barely sort out Dickens’s mob of characters.
Author-composer Jill Santoriello, in contrast, has made a relatively solid try at compressing the novel’s notoriously over-elaborate story for swift theatrical comprehension (“It would be hard to imagine a clumsier or more disjointed framework” —James Fitzjames Stephen, 1859). And Santoriello’s songs, though undistinguished, at least display, in their sincerity, some aspiration toward the tunefulness of old-style show music; again it’s only Les Miz–consciousness, often abetted by drab lyric writing, that keeps dragging them back down into the tick-tick-pound insistence of the show’s role model.
At the mercy of that pounding, and of Carlyle’s apparent apathy to acting, far too many of the cast settle for dishing out their roles mechanically, like cafeteria food. James Barbour, who was an interesting Rochester in the equally misguided Jane Eyre musical, delivers a complacent, monotonously bellowing Sidney Carton; Natalie Toro’s Madame Defarge, so unremittingly evil she makes most Medeas look mousy, sings in a headache-causing screech. In contrast, Gregg Edelman is a distinguished and touching Dr. Manette, while Brandi Burkhardt, vivacious and vocally attractive, brings Lucy a sweetness that makes her cluster of adorers fully understandable. Her freshness, though, can’t save A Tale of Two Cities from its kinship to those musical dinosaurs of the Mackintoshocene era—a small dinosaur with evolutionary aspirations, maybe, but too little and arriving too late to survive Broadway’s oncoming economic ice age.
Nicky Silver’s Three Changes, at Playwrights Horizons, is a curious throwback to an even earlier era, the heyday of Pinter and Orton, when family comedy darkened and turned sexually kinky. Its style seems an odd fit for Silver, whose charm as a writer previously lay in his American penchant for frenetic excess—a long way from Pinter’s clipped phrases or Orton’s carefully teased post-Wilde epigrams.
In Three Changes, a boring broker (Dylan McDermott) and his wife (Maura Tierney) take in his brother (Scott Cohen), a wrecked Hollywood hotshot, now penniless (he says) and fresh from rehab. This change shortly brings change #2: The brother invites a hustler (Brian J. Smith), picked up in the park, to move in. Change #3 is readily foreseeable, especially if you’re up on Entertaining Mr. Sloane; a quick visit to Pinter’s The Collection and A Slight Ache might also be useful.
Not everything Silver does here can be dismissed as merely imitative. Late in the play, he comes up with two powerfully written scenes—broker and brother, broker and wife—that suggest a last-ditch struggle to free his material from its overriding influences. But the feckless tone he’s set up, using heavily explanatory narration to bridge gaps, inventing a needless character (embodied by the always excellent Aya Cash) to comment on scenes she couldn’t have witnessed, has already discouraged our faith in the event. Pinter omits naturalistic information and slaps us with sudden contradictions, but his puzzle pieces all fit together; he tends to reserve his leaps into the surreal for his climaxes. Orton’s data are always there, embedded in the freeze-dried witticisms. With Silver, our confusion about what to believe looks more like the playwright’s own uncertainty about what he’s writing.
Silver’s shortcomings are made worse by Wilson Milam’s glum, plodding production, in which everyone seems to have been discouraged from enhancing the characters with any unspoken feelings, maybe to avoid giving away too much. McDermott and Tierney convey nothing; Cohen, who’s given strong performances in worse plays than this, provides only flickers of interest. Smith, apparently directed to buoy the evening with adolescent energy, pushes every moment into hard, bright emptiness. It’s a good thing the show, unlike our larger banking institutions, has Cash on hand.
What the downtown troupe Radiohole has on hand, in Anger/Nation, is a good idea, a theory, and, apparently, a general notion that anyone deploying enough pointless technology can be the Wooster Group. The good idea: to test quintessential American mores by pitting avant-gardiste Kenneth Anger’s sensibility against that of the saloon-smashing 19th-century feminist Carry Nation. The theory: that structuring a performance inhibits audience members’ free access to all aspects of it. The general notion: untrue, alas. The pity, apart from the waste of that good idea, is that Radiohole has deployed such exacting effort to make its piece a random road to nowhere, which you can get on at any point if you haven’t got somewhere better to be.