Critics have favorites, and I won’t deny that Prospect Theater, which loves to stick its neck out while developing improbable new musicals, is one of mine. Very few other companies, after all, are putting on shows about topics like the marital torments of a Renaissance madrigal composer or the afterlife adventures of suicidal teenagers. And then there was that version of As You Like It set in samurai-era Japan. But enough digressing. Critics also have obligations, one of which is to tell the public the truth. And the truth about Prospect’s latest production — The Mad Ones, by librettist Kait Kerrigan and composer Brian Loudermilk, currently at 59E59 Theaters — is that it’s an intriguing but empty shell, a husk of a musical from which the nourishing substance inside is inexplicably absent.
This is a pity. Everyone involved clearly has talent, including the authors. A great deal of care has been taken with the show; musical director Paul Staroba’s band includes a live harpist, a rare sight Off-Broadway or on it these days. Stephen Brackett’s production always looks good, though its bareness reflects the odd emptiness of the material. In what seems a subconscious echo of the authorial shortfall, the backdrop of Adam Rigg’s set features a long, empty rectangle framed by bars of light. Like this abstract context, the piece itself appears attractive and solid while it’s going on, but the solidity vanishes in retrospect.
In what seems to be an affluent late-Nineties suburb — there’s emphasis on car culture and little reference to the internet or social media — lives Samantha (Krystina Alabado), called Sam, the daughter of a proudly single feminist, Beverly (Leah Hocking), a statistician by trade. Intelligent as her mother, Sam, a high school senior, is her class’s valedictorian, but she’s also self-effacing, indecisive, and so anxiety-ridden she can’t pass her driving test. The late-Sixties ideas of female assertiveness and achievement promulgated at home have bred in her not their opposite but a kind of paralyzed diffidence.
Sam doesn’t know what she wants — not even where she wants to go to college. Her mother presses for an Ivy League school, but Sam’s best friend, Kelly (Emma Hunton), a straight-B student, is heading for the nearby State U. and wants Sam to come along. Kelly also has periodic fantasies, which mildly tempt Sam, of the two of them hitting the road together with no goal in mind, female avatars of the country-crossing buddies in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a famous passage from which lends the show its title. (Don’t confuse the show, by the way, with the avant-garde troupe called the Mad Ones — deriving its name from the same Kerouac quote — whose recent piece, Miles for Mary, will be restaged this season at Playwrights Horizons.)
Beverly, naturally, throws cold water on this project, in the work’s best song, featuring Kerrigan’s most incisive lyrics and delivered ferociously by Hocking: “A lone boy on the highway/You think, ‘That could be me.’/But you were born a woman and/You’ll never be that free./The glass breaks in the ceiling/And women swell with pride/But when a woman breaks the rules/The world’s not on her side.” Sam herself, predictably, can’t make a choice. As the show proceeds, its few events get increasingly engulfed by the minimally defined conflict between the planned career path urged by Beverly and Kelly’s fantasy of a spontaneous ride off into the sunset, while Sam increasingly seems a personality-less beanbag tossed between them.
Sam’s traitlessness is particularly puzzling because she’s said to be so bright, and often proves it by her remarks. Yes, all high school seniors are troubled and anxiety-ridden about the future, now more than ever, but a valedictorian, of all students, is presumably capable of having ideas, preferences, passions bred out of intellectual curiosity. (And you might expect a valedictorian’s reading to have gone beyond the Kerouac her best friend recommends.) Kerrigan’s insistence on Sam’s inability to commit herself ultimately diminishes her heroine’s character: The conflict supposedly going on in Sam’s mind freezes her into impassivity for most of the work. Alabado compounds the problem by playing Sam with such insistence on her nerdiness that you may begin to wonder why the zesty, experience-hungry Kelly should take so much interest in her.
Nor does The Mad Ones offer a compelling male alternative to balance this one-dimensional female dialectic. Sam has a boyfriend, Adam (an excellent performance by Jay Armstrong Johnson, replacing the indisposed Ben Fankhauser, who resumes the role on December 5), a pleasant, easygoing fellow whose sex drive seems as low as his aspirations. Adam, whose chief preoccupation seems to be what kind of takeout to order for dinner, has no goal in life beyond taking over his father’s tire business. One of Kerrigan’s unwise maneuvers is to have Adam suddenly develop all sorts of ambitions at the very end of the piece, hard to believe after we’ve watched him drift so amiably through life.
I’ve omitted from this description, intentionally, a key event that shadows all of The Mad Ones, for the simple reason that it doesn’t alter anything in the dramatic substance of the evening. Nor does it reveal anything about the characters. It’s just an event, random, that adds a layer of emotion to what Sam is attempting to sort out, but fundamentally leaves the larger matter of her sense of self, which is the work’s core focus, untouched. This stroke of arguable dramaturgy at the show’s core also points up, ironically, the extent to which its title is a misnomer. Sam certainly doesn’t fit Kerouac’s concept of “the mad ones” he admires. And for all the authors’ efforts to play up the Sam-Kelly relationship, Sam, nebulous though she may be, stands alone at the show’s center. That the other three characters get the showier songs, and evoke more vivid performances, underscores the eerie emptiness at the heart of The Mad Ones.