Sometimes I think theater lovers would be luckier if only we could forget the past and live, as apparently everyone else in America can, pretending that history doesn’t exist. We’d wake up every morning devoid of memories, like the amnesiac played so enchantingly by J. Smith-Cameron in I forget which gimmicky Off-Broadway play of the last decade, sparkly with anticipation and ready to greet each new production as the wonder of its day. But no such luck. Disappearing every night while you watch it being created, theater clings more tightly to memory than any of the other arts. Memory’s unreliability as a guide merely means that theater history, like every other branch of history, is a matter of interpretation.
So let me be cautious and keep my prior knowledge out of this column, which covers three works from a past familiar to me, particularly when I deal with A Little Night Music (Walter Kerr Theatre), Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 musical, the original production of which remains a startlingly distinct memory. I’ll take Trevor Nunn’s new production, a London import now expanded and recast for Broadway, simply for what it is.
What it is, regrettably, is not very good, though its resident marvel, Angela Lansbury, occasionally manages to lift the draggy evening off the ground with the sly turn of a phrase or the even slyer twist of a half-smile. The surrounding cast is never actively painful; they just constantly seem to be working under par. Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie, as Count and Countess Malcolm, sing well enough. Alexander Hanson, in the central role of Egerman, has at least started down the right road with both singing and acting; Ramona Mallory shows potential as his unconsummated wife. And the star, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree, has beauty and a striking if overly brassy presence. But Nunn’s reductive, oddly perfunctory approach both diminishes and coarsens their work.
Based on Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 breakthrough film (and one of his rare comedies), A Little Night Music is a bittersweet, witty rumination on the vagaries of love, told in waltzy operetta terms, albeit with unusually sharp underpinnings. In scaling the work down, Nunn’s intention seems to have been to emphasize the starkness of its events and its somber outlook. But these elements only live by contrast to the floaty, elegant style: Take the operetta out of Night Music and you might as well be playing the score’s profusion of waltzes in 7/8 time.
That degree of distortion is about what we get. While the melodies, and the diamond-sharp bite of Sondheim’s lyrics, constantly tug us back to some distant past when sorrow was equally real but everything was done more stylishly, Nunn’s production repeatedly dumps us down in some dreary noplace where life is far more loutish. The furniture that trundles across David Farley’s stodgy, unevocative unit set suggests that these elite types all shop at Crate & Barrel. Sampling dessert wine from a king’s cellar, the dinner guests at elderly Madame Armfeldt’s château sit on the floor. No wonder the old lady bemoans, in her song “Liaisons,” the disappearance of style, skill, forethought, discretion, passion, and craft. She could easily be reviewing the show she’s in.
Some of this downgrading might be forgivable (OK, the dinner party’s a picnic) if Nunn’s direction didn’t push so crudely at every point. When Egerman, half asleep, murmurs Desiree’s name, Nunn has him sit bolt upright in bed and bellow it. “The Miller’s Son” is deprived of its context; Leigh Ann Larkin, as Petra, simply marches downstage and belts it at us. Rushed gabbling through the verses of “The Glamorous Life,” Zeta-Jones is then asked to sledgehammer the gag lines in “You Must Meet My Wife” at the audience. The coarse treatment makes the work, particularly the more brittle sections of Wheeler’s book, seem a crude comedown from the subtle curvatures of Bergman’s screenplay, rather than the tremendous upgrade that Night Music is, or at least used to be, from the common run of musical shows. Sondheim deserves better.
Noël Coward, in contrast, deserves immediate rescue from the soggy mess at St. Ann’s Warehouse that calls itself Brief Encounter. His one-act play, Still Life, could have stood perfectly well on its own or served, if a producer craved variety, as the finale of an evening-long variety bill. But director Emma Rice, who apparently hates the idea of theater sustaining any narrative interest, takes the play’s celebrated film adaptation as her starting point for an unappetizing plateful of multimedia hash that tosses Coward songs, settings of Coward poems, and slapsticky dance routines randomly into this classic piece of stiff-upper-lip romantic kitsch, its scenes rendered alternately in earnest or as over-the-top camp, with giant projections of pounding surf or rushing trains as imagistic commentary. You can’t blame the actors and musicians, all clearly skilled at what they do. Why anyone should care about the pointless, gibbering results is a larger question. A pity Sir Noël isn’t still with us to prevent it—or at least review it.
The Mint’s production of Maurine Dallas Watkins’s So Help Me God! (Lucille Lortel) provides a mildly amusing footnote to the theatrical era that Brief Encounter trash-mashes. Watkins, famous for the source play of Chicago, followed it up with this cynical takedown of star egos and backstage backstabbers, which nearly reached Broadway before the 1929 stock-market crash scattered its would-be investors. Under Jonathan Bank’s direction, Kristen Johnston and Anna Chlumsky, neither one perfectly cast, make a good game try at the roles of manic star and idealistic understudy. Some of the supporting actors catch on to the comic angles, and Kraig Swartz, too briefly, gets great laughs as a ninnyish director who sounds like a prequel to The Producers‘ Roger DeBris.