Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Lighter Company at Barrington Stage

Aaron Tveit (right) and the cast of Company at Barrington Stage. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

To say that a production of a Stephen Sondheim musical treats the material like sketch comedy would normally constitute an insult towards that production and its creative team. However, in the case of Barrington Stage’s version of Company (1970), which stars Aaron Tveit as the only single man among his group of married couples, it’s a savvy move that undercuts the over-the-top reverence that threatens to turn this flawed but often enjoyable show into an unbearable slog. 

Company’s reputation rests, in large part, on the fact that theatregoers think of it in terms of Sondheim’s glorious music, and I have little to add by way of praise there that hasn’t already been said. But this ignores the other half of the equation, which is George Furth’s periodically funny but often weak script. I’m not the first critic to point out that the plot, intentionally fragmented though it might be, still doesn’t make much sense. (Here’s my personal hang-up: why, given Bobby’s former or potential romantic attachments to so many of his friends, are their significant others so cool with his hanging around?) There’s a glib cynicism to many of the book scenes, which sits awkwardly next to the moments of seriousness, such as Bobby’s eleventh-hour revelation -- prompted by the pass made at him by Joanne (Ellen Harvey) -- that he wants to be in a committed relationship and thereby grow as a person. While cynicism never entirely goes out of style, the show’s tone feels very much of a piece with the general malaise of the 1970s, adding to a sense that parts of it are somewhat dated and not just because answering machines figure prominently in a few scenes. Perhaps the most egregious example comes when another one of Bobby’s friends, this time Peter (Paul Schaefer), tentatively raises the possibility of a sexual liaison between them. Given that Furth frames Peter and his wife Susan as rather ridiculous earlier in the play, it’s hard to take his pass at Bobby seriously, and there’s a hint of gay panic being played for laughs. Finally, the play’s subject matter – a good-looking, well-liked, sexually successful thirtysomething guy’s personal crisis – inherently undercuts attempts to treat it too seriously.

Paul Schaefer, Aaron Tveit & Lauren Marcus. (Photo: Daniel Rader)
It’s therefore refreshing to see director Julianne Boyd take a lighter approach to Barrington Stage’s Company, a move which echoes Lonny Price’s successful 2011 concert staging. Writing for Critics At Large, Steve Vineberg mentioned that Price’s take on the material gave it a variety-show feel, which is close to the sketch-comedy vibe of this production. Boyd and her cast lean hard into the funnier moments of Company, sometimes perhaps too hard: Schaefer as Peter and Jeannette Bayardelle and Lawrence Street as another of the couples, Sarah and Harry, draw some laughs but veer into cartoon territory. So does the already over-the-top “Getting Married Today,” here sung by Lauren Marcus as Amy, and some of the song’s comic impact is blunted by the slowed-down the tempo. However, Boyd's approach pays off well in other instances, such as “Barcelona,” the duet between Bobby and flight attendant April (Mara Davi), and it lightens the mood in other, less farcical moments. Nora Schell is enjoyably loose as Bobby’s hippieish lover Marta, while Jane Pfitsch elevates her antics as secretly uptight Jenny above mere shtick.

Boyd doesn’t just do comedy, however, and it’s in the show’s revered pair of final numbers, “Ladies Who Lunch” and “Being Alive,” that the production shifts into a different gear. What I find so impressive about Harvey and Tveit in their respective deliveries of these two songs is the sense that they aren’t just basking in their star moments in the spotlight. Instead, they’re using the numbers to take their characters somewhere. In the case of Harvey’s Joanne, it’s on a downward trajectory, full of drunken rage and regret; when it’s performed in a certain way, you can fault “Ladies Who Lunch” for its nasty condescension towards its subjects, but Harvey aims Joanne’s barbs inwards, which makes it much more effective and interesting.

As for Tveit, he doesn’t possess superhuman powers, so he can’t make “Being Alive” work in terms of Bobby's overall narrative, but he does convey a remarkable sense of progression throughout the number. It’s a moment of genuine revelation for Bobby. It also stands in stark contrast to the rest of Tveit’s performance, not because he’s bad in the role, but, paradoxically, because he’s perhaps cast almost too well. Since I’m hammering on about the weaknesses in Furth’s script, it’s always bothered me that he intentionally and explicitly makes Bobby such a cipher. The idea that he’s the likable, inoffensive guy whose refusal to wade too deeply into a relationship allows his friends to project their desires onto him, thereby making him their common best friend, makes sense, but it’s also hard to figure out how an actor ought to approach such a role, or how to get the audience to invest in him emotionally. Tveit manages to convey Bobby’s breezy but noncommittal charm, making it clear why his disparate groups of friends enjoy being around him – although, at 33 years old and with a record of playing younger than his age in his major roles, it’s hard to fully buy into this actor as someone who is hitting an age-related crisis. However, he’s smart enough to play up the contrast between that version of Bobby and the newly uncertain but more complex character who emerges at the very end of the play. The problem with the kind of showboating that other performers have done with "Being Alive" (like Raul Esparza in John Doyle's Broadway revival) is it tends to give Bobby some sort of definitive culmination, when the idea is supposed to be that the revelation implied in the song suggests a new beginning. Tveit's rendition of the song isn't about catharsis but about open-endedness.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

No comments:

Post a Comment