The Threepenny Opera, now at Atlantic Theater, is no conventional, rough-hewn beggars’ tale. For this staging, director Martha Clarke applies her sophisticated visual sensibilities to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s celebrated musical caricature of the scoundrel Macheath’s unscrupulous business and romantic dealings in Victorian London. When the imagery comes together, it can feel like you’re watching a living version of one of George Grosz’s drawings of Berlin between the wars: sad gray light, flat-capped men lounging in sordid bordellos, and sensuous desperation lurking in every corner. (Not to mention our recurring, jarring sightings of an English bulldog.) The cast hits high points in those familiar, gorgeous Weill ballads like “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” — especially when the constant rearrangement of bodies and furniture halts and they occupy center stage where we can truly take them in.
Laura Osnes (as Polly Peachum) and Sally Murphy (as Jenny), as women wronged in different ways by Macheath (Michael Park), both carve tender tones into the material harshness of a London that threatens to devour them. Mary Beth Peil, as the weary slumboss’s wife, Mrs. Peachum, lends another grace note to this criminal clan. Ultimately, Clarke’s rich tableaux overtax the dramatic portions, which are curiously subdued. That approach deflates the prickly ironies suggested in Brecht’s dialogue, but as his deal-making characters always remind us, everything comes at a price.