Aesthetic fixations make strange bedfellows. Musical theater, a highly stylized art form that demands the merger of many disparate elements, can hardly benefit much from having its scenes scattered around the auditorium, its characters literally rubbing elbows with various segments of the audience. Yet Jack Cummings III, artistic director of Transport Group, seems compulsively eager to move his troupe’s productions, musicals included, off the stage and into the house. His current revival, of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 musical Hello Again, is the third Transport Group production in a year to take place in a high-ceilinged nontheatrical space (this one at 52 Mercer Street), with actors moving among the spectators and scenes played in every imaginable corner.
Cummings’s approach worked well enough for last spring’s Boys in the Band, using a different, penthouse-level space, furnished to resemble the hero’s snobby East Side apartment. It worked less well, last fall, for the iffy, episodic new musical See Rock City: The constantly shifting focus only diluted the show’s already diffuse material. The diluting process doesn’t quite repeat itself with Hello Again, another episodic work, chiefly because, this time, the material’s comparative cohesion, and LaChiusa’s skill at sustaining its tone, save the situation.
Hello Again is a liberty-taking adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen (1900), a/k/a La Ronde. Impermissible in its own time and only published clandestinely, which voided its copyright, Reigen has spawned myriad versions since. A sad-eyed, sardonic view of modern urban society’s sexual transactions—Schnitzler, a Viennese physician, was close spiritual kin to his contemporary colleague Freud—the work begins with a hooker picking up a soldier and ends, 10 orgasms later, with her having been picked up by a bigwig. In its nuanced variety of preludes to intercourse and postcoital skedaddlings, the action sums up civilization’s gonadal discontents.
LaChiusa’s Americanized version displays, as always, his fabulous technical skills, but never quite rises to other-than-erotic fulfillment. He tries to universalize Schnitzler’s work by setting his scenes in a non-sequential jumble of eras—characters go down on the Titanic, among other things—and by including a few same-sex collisions on the list. Like Cummings’s all-over-the-map staging, LaChiusa’s tactics increase variety but weaken any possible cumulative effect. In the largely fine cast, acting honors mostly go to the men, singing honors to the women, particularly Alexandra Silber. But sex, singing, and site-specifics never wholly merge.