The setup for The Hunchback Variations—now playing at 59E59 Theaters—is an inspired but ultimately forgettable bit of nuttiness, sort of like a New Yorker caption contest cartoon come to life. Quasimodo (Larry Adams) and Beethoven (George Andrew Wolff) get together at a talking-heads event to discuss their botched collaborative attempt at scoring one of theater’s most elusive sounds: The melancholy noise of a string snapping in the distance that arrives partway through Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Who better to pursue this mysterious sonic stage direction than the great (deaf) German composer, and Victor Hugo’s maniacal fictional bell-ringer (also probably deaf from all the booming gongs)? It’s an impossible panel convened to examine an impossible sound. And, since the subject is sound, why not have them sing about it? Billed as a “chamber opera,” with music by Mark Messing and a libretto by Mickle Maher, the piece is pretty much entirely sung-through, to live accompaniment on the cello and piano.
But this level of silliness is hard to sustain, and Variations stretches its premise far beyond its tensile strength. It would make a lovely Monty Python–style spoof-skit, but strains patience as a full-length work with philosophical aspirations. As its title suggests, Variations is structured as a series of riffs on the stuffed-shirt pretensions of academic discussions of art, as the unlikely collaborators ruminate in song on the meanings of their capsized project (Quasimodo has a nice number about the different categories of artistic flop). The duo, it seems, is doomed to repeat a failing discussion about failure. (To punctuate each sequence, Quasimodo performs a rejected version of Chekhov’s sound effect on a DIY noisemaker or ramshackle homemade musical instrument. As you’d expect, many are quite funny.)
There’s less variation here than you might hope for, though, and far more repetition. Messing’s inoffensive but often plodding score has a way of slowing down the text and bogging down the ideas. By the umpteenth time Beethoven (a preppy gent in wingtips and a bowtie) re-introduces himself and Quasimodo, and rehashes their discussion topic, you may find your eyes straying to your watch.
And all the sketch-com cleverness nearly suffocates Variations’ efforts to tunefully meditate on expressing the inexpressible in the theater. The pair’s rehearsal-room squabbles—Quasimodo nurtures a grudge about having had to meet in his fetid shack on a swamp instead of at Beethoven’s opulent pad; and Beethoven wasn’t really pulling his weight anyhow—are far less interesting than the problems presented by impossible modernist stage directions. It’s hard to take the creative differences of such a whimsically contrived combo seriously enough to really savor arias about Beethoven’s squelching commute through the mud or Quasimodo’s artistic frustrations.
Variations has its moments: As Quasimodo, basso voice booming from behind lumpy makeup, perpetually grimacing at the injustice of it all, Adams delivers exactly the performance you’d want from a tortured fictional grotesque turned avant-garde composer. And the piece’s conclusion, which sets some wistful Chekhov lines to the evening’s most memorable melody, comes close to capturing a little of the sense of irrevocable loss that attends the string-snapping sound’s dying fall. But unlike the Russian’s much-debated but never-explained aural metaphor, there’s nothing lastingly imponderable here—no mystery to carry away once the laughs are over.