Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: Too Late for Satire

Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano & Michael Zegen in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice came out toward the end of my freshman year in college. I had never encountered anything quite like it, and I couldn’t get enough of it – I saw it three times on its initial release. It was a comedy of manners set among Los Angeles’s hip and wealthy, a nouveau aristocracy just a little too old (i.e., in their thirties) and certainly too bourgeois to be the love children they fashioned themselves after but happily infected by the entrancing new ideas in the sun-baked SoCal air – smoking weed, experimenting with open marriage, challenging themselves to try to be completely honest. It was an up-to-the-minute satire yet it laughed at its characters with tenderness rather than disapproval. And the final moments, after the four title characters try to go to bed together and discover the limitations of their sexual freedom, were oddly touching: dressed up once again for a Tony Bennett concert, they walk among strangers who are their peers, looking them in the eyes, still devoted to putting the sixties ethic to the test. Mazursky (who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker) was the most gifted purveyor of high comedy in American movies after Ernst Lubitsch, and he went on to make even better pictures over the next two decades. But Bob & Carol has a special quality – even now, I think, when it’s unmistakably a memento of a long-ago era.

I couldn’t have imagined before seeing it what inspired the book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman, the composer Duncan Sheik and his co-lyricist Amanda Green to turn Bob & Carol into a stage musical half a century after the movie came out. Watching the show, though, produced off Broadway by The New Group in the intimate Linney Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, I thought it was obvious: these three collaborators simply love the material, and is there a better reason? I didn’t get the impression from sitting through last season’s Broadway musical of Tootsie that the people who put it together had fallen in love with that movie; all they succeeded in doing was updating it and “fixing” the details that linked it to the early eighties and thus turning it into something else entirely. Sherman is so faithful to the screenplay that, if you know it as well as I do, in many scenes you can practically recite the lines along with the actors. What he adds, with the help of the director Scott Elliott, the choreographer Kelly Devine and the set designer Derek McLane, is a clever format for putting it on the stage without getting bogged down in complicated set changes (they’re speedy and ingenious, and the actors help to execute them) or calling on the help of a large ensemble. The only other people on stage besides the four actors who play the title roles are a four-member combo and the singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega as a character called the Band Leader who functions as a kind of small-scale musical version of the Stage Manager in Our Town, singing songs that comment on the action and filling in when a fifth actor is required to exchange lines with one of the principals – like Alice’s therapist or the group leader in the opening scene at an unnamed version of the Esalen Institute, where Bob, there to shoot a documentary, and Carol have a life-changing experience. Most of the other supporting characters you may recall from the movie, like the waiter at the couples’ favorite restaurant and Carol’s housekeeper, whom she makes sure to address in Spanish, have been snipped out, which makes the play feel less cinematic but more streamlined. It’s 105 minutes without an intermission and it feels about half as long.

Sheik wrote the music for the Broadway show Spring Awakening, one of the most surprising musicals I’ve ever seen – Frank Wedekind’s pioneering turn-of-the-century attack on sexual repression in which the only modern-day alteration was a rock score. Here his music attempts to capture the style and tone of the period, but without making a big deal of it. Not all of the score is equally successful, but it’s very pleasant – honeyed. And three of the actors – Jennifer Damiano as Carol, Michael Zegen (sensational as Rachel Brosnahan’s on-again, off-again husband Joel on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Ted and Ana Nogueira as Alice – get right into the period. Only Joél Pérez as Bob seems wrongheaded; you can’t tell if it’s a casting error or if he’s just inadequate, but either way you really miss the original Bob, the late Robert Culp. And Vega isn’t an actor at all. She keeps putting quotation marks around her lines so that it always sounds as if she’s sending them up, but I’m sure she didn’t intend to produce that effect. Nogueira and Zegen don’t bring anything especially new to the roles that Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould originated, but they’re very funny. Damiano is the brightest addition in the cast. Natalie Wood was affecting as Carol in the movie, but more because of her ingenuousness and amateurishness and the way she looked on camera, like an ornament on a hippie’s Christmas tree. Damiano is a genuine actress, and she gets shadings in her character’s lines that you’ve never heard before. She also comes across as a cannier and more insightful Carol. (Jeff Mahshie has had a lot of fun costuming the performers.)

The most unexpected element of the musical is that, although the material hasn’t been altered, it comes across as more serious than it did in the movie. Oh, much of it is still very funny, but the satire has dropped off. At first I was puzzled by the change but then it occurred to me that if you tried to replicate the tone of the movie in 2020 it would seem cheap and condescending; no target is easier to pink than a remnant of the social culture of an epoch as instantly recognizable as the sixties. The people who put together Bob & Carol aren’t looking for a target; they love the period they’ve chosen to put on stage. I missed some of the silliness of the movie but I appreciated their approach. It’s a gracious and generous show.

On a few occasions the actors pull members of the audience up on stage to fill out a scene. One instance, when a spectator stands in for the young woman Ted picks up on a plane, doesn’t work at all; the night I saw the play she was about the same age as he was so his comments about the difference between their generations didn’t make sense and the effect was unintentionally (and clumsily) Brechtian. But at the end each of the four actors picks a dancing partner out of the audience, and the result goes a fair way toward reproducing the feel of Mazursky’s finale. The show has received terrible reviews from other critics, but the night I saw it the audience seemed carried away by its sincerity and sweetness, its utter lack of cynicism. It’s not a great musical, but I walked away feeling great.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment