Far From Heaven Stays Strictly Earthbound; Classic Stage Company Revives Caucasian Chalk Circle


Don’t bother bringing tissues to Far From Heaven, the chilly musical adaptation of Todd Haynes’s 2002 film. Haynes updated a classic Douglas Sirk weepie, trading Sirk’s class concerns for racial and sexual themes. Set in 1957 Connecticut, the story centers on Cathy Whitaker, a chic homemaker who discovers her husband, Frank, embracing another man even as she senses her own feelings for her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan.

Aided by a rich Technicolor palette and Elmer Bernstein’s lush orchestral score, Haynes’s movie transcended homage. It was arch, seductive, and deeply affecting. However, in shifting Far From Heaven from widescreen to narrow stage, the piece has lost much of its poignancy. Though audiences heartily applauded a preview performance at Playwrights Horizons, there was scarcely a wet eye in the house.

Some of the problems result from the choice of material. The theater can’t re-create the sumptuous colors and swoony cinematography that defined the film. More significantly, that script depended on its characters’ inability to explain or explore their emotional lives. That sort of reticence doesn’t play onstage, particularly in musicals, where the unsayable yields to the sing-out-able. And yet the stage version of Far From Heaven seems distant and reserved. Perhaps director Michael Greif’s desire to avoid the slushy and sentimental explains this strange restraint.

Surely some of the fault lies with Richard Greenberg, who fared well this season with an original play, The Assembled Parties, but foundered on another adaptation, the Broadway nonevent Breakfast at Tiffany’s. His Far From Heaven book is somewhat more skillful, but it too exactly replicates the movie’s structure, never allowing the musical a full life of its own. Allen Moyer’s unwieldy industrial set doesn’t help matters, nor do Kenneth Posner’s gloomy lights. Were the ’50s an eternal dusk? (Catherine Zuber’s costumes provide more color, though even their full skirts don’t entirely conceal star Kelli O’Hara’s obvious pregnancy.)

For contrast, look to Grey Gardens, the previous effort from Greif, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie (Doug Wright supplied the libretto). Though that piece, too, derived from a film, it was altogether more playful, imaginative, and emotionally gratifying. Here, the music and lyrics are indelibly clever, as in the low note Steven Pasquale’s Frank sounds when he agrees to undertake conversion therapy or the way dissonance intrudes as the Whitaker marriage unravels. If Korie sometimes overindulges in ’50s slang or Frankel the period’s jazzy signatures, they still offer more than mere pastiche.

But while the songs contain many duos, trios, and quartets, they all have a way of feeling like solos; the characters remain isolated from one another—vocally, expressively—beyond what the script’s themes require. O’Hara, with her gold-plated uvula, is incandescent as always, but she often appears to be singing into a dim vacuum. You might say the same of Pasquale’s anguished Frank and Isaiah Johnson’s kindhearted Raymond. Only in a single number, Cathy and Raymond’s “The Only One,” do two voices meld and merge into something more than the sum of their timbres. Yes, that number gets a reprise, but you hunger for further harmonies.

In a second-act scene, Raymond expresses hope that people will “see beyond the surface—beyond the color of things.” It’s a nice wish, but for a musical with such a limited emotional palette, it’s a vain one.

A good deed goes somewhat unpunished in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s valedictory play pitting individual ideals against social pressures. This Classic Stage Company revival, directed by Brian Kulick, dispenses with the traditional frame narrative (a dispute among collective workers) and substitutes a new, rather unnecessary one in which a troupe of post-Soviet thespians put on a show. (If it’s Brecht, don’t fix it?)

During a revolution, a servant girl, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), rescues the wealthy baby of her indolent employers. The child causes her many hardships—confrontations with soldiers, an undesired marriage, a sore back—but Grusha is reluctant to return him to his neglectful mother (the droll Mary Testa). Only Azdak (Christopher Lloyd), a scoundrel turned judge, can apportion custody.

The play doesn’t gain much from the updated setting or the fresh frame (though the latter does occasion some gentle audience participation), or even from Duncan Sheik’s genial pop-folk tunes. But when Kulick leaves aside these trappings—and prevails on the antic Lloyd to cool his actorly jets—the play’s stark poetry and deep ambivalence shines through. “Terrible is the temptation to do good,” the narrator advises. Happily, the cast and creatives often ignore the warning.