Sunday, January 23, 2022

Inhospitable: Marianne Elliott’s Revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company

Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk in Company. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

There’s something undeniably poignant about seeing a Sondheim musical about New York in New York weeks after his death and mere months after theaters have opened up again. In the new revival of the 1970 Company, the fact the book (originally by George Furth) has been updated (by director Marianne Elliott, working in collaboration with Sondheim) and many of the roles have been gender-swapped raises no alarms with me, mainly because I think the material, despite its acclaim and legendary status, has never worked, so why not mix things up? What are Company’s faults? First, Bobby, the main character, is largely a cipher. He doesn’t even have a profession – all he does is have dinner with friends. Second, the central mystery of Bobby to his friends – why he isn’t married – is no mystery at all. If his friends are examples of what marriage is, it’s an unmitigated disaster that no one in his right mind would undertake. And third, the big moment when one of those friends, the uber-sophisticate Joanne, suggests that he needs someone to take care of him, leading him to ask, “But who will I take care of?,” feels less like an epiphany than a writerly conceit. It also doesn’t seem like the result would be to convince him he’s ready for marriage, especially when there’s no spousal candidate in sight. 

So go ahead and transform male Bobby into female Bobbie and see if the material works any better.  Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, at least not in this production. Elliott and Sondheim not only updated the script and the lyrics, but the time period as well – it’s present-day, with cell phones always at the ready. The opening is fun, and when the orchestra is revealed above the stage at the end of the number, it’s genuinely thrilling, even though David Cullen’s orchestrations are vastly different from Jonathan Tunick’s originals. But then we go into Bobbie’s first visit with a married couple, Harry (Christopher Sieber) and Sarah (Jennifer Simard). Sieber and Simard are skilled performers and elicit many laughs, but they persuade no one that theirs is a marriage anyone should stay in. And I don’t think the martial arts demonstration, where Sarah physically bests Harry, has ever been more ineptly staged. (In the original it was karate. Here it’s been updated to jujitsu, which is apparently more au courant.) Sieber is about twice the size of Simard, but the audience claps dutifully when she throws him anyway – even though the moment is awkwardly staged. And because this scene takes place in a self-enclosed, realistic set, we have no idea why Patti LuPone suddenly walks into it and starts making comments.  (She’s getting ready to sing “The Little Things You Do Together,” of course, but we shouldn’t be led to think that she’s physically in the same theatrical space as the other three.)

Elliott’s attempts to give depth to Bobbie (Katrina Lenk) amount to exactly one thing: she is celebrating her 35th birthday (as Bobby did in the original), but now her biological clock is ticking. To drive this all home, the number 35 is everywhere. Bobbie first enters holding mylar birthday balloons that say “35,” the balloons reappear later in a nightmarish jumbo size, and the number is even tattooed in Roman numerals on one of her boyfriend’s arms. Worse, Elliott employs actual ticking and baby cries in the sound design that recur throughout the two acts. And yet somehow, adding the rather clichéd idea of the stresses of a woman’s waning child-bearing years doesn’t really help us understand Bobbie any more than we did Bobby.

Elliott changes things up in other ways as well. The one couple that actually gets married during the course of the play, Paul and Amy, is now same-sex, Paul (Etai Benson) and Jamie (Matt Doyle). Doyle is terrific performing the tongue-twisting and breath-defying patter song “Getting Married Today,” but he amps up the neuroses so much in the song’s aftermath, and his telling Paul the wedding’s off seems so terrible, that when he runs off after Paul at the scene’s end to assure him the wedding’s back on, we find it difficult to believe his partner would agree. Elliott also shows a severe lapse in taste when she has Jamie sing with all the wives and Paul sing with all the husbands, thereby assigning Jamie the wife role.

The three girlfriends who sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” are now boyfriends. This idea works reasonably well in the case of PJ (formerly Marta), played by Bobby Conte, who gets a big laugh at his first appearance thanks to his man-bun, the open-collared T-shirt that displays his pecs, and his general yoga-dude vibe.  (The generally fun costumes are by Bunny Christie, who also did the somewhat less successful scenic design.) Conte has a great voice and sings “Another Hundred People” expertly, but the staging for this song fails utterly. The cast pushes around giant letters that spell “COMPANY” initially, but as they swerve and meander across the stage they disintegrate into nonsense, except for when three letters out front spell “COY.” (Does this mean something? Probably not.) At song’s end, the three letters at the front of the stage are “NYC,” and predictably the crowd goes wild. Manu Narayan’s tech bro Theo (née Kathy) doesn’t make much of an impression (the role seems reduced from the original). But the gender reversal that doesn’t work at all is April the stewardess to Andy the flight attendant (Clayborne Elder), and in the process it ruins what has always been the show’s most sure-fire number, the “Barcelona” duet with Bobbie.

Etai Benson and Matt Doyle in Company. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The 2011 New York Philharmonic staged concert of Company, directed by Lonny Price, simulcast in movie theaters and still available for streaming, is the best production of the show I’ve seen or am ever likely to see. It also co-starred Patti LuPone as Joanne, and Neil Patrick Harris played Bobby, though as good as they were (and they were spectacular), it’s Christina Hendricks’s April that has stayed with me and haunts me still. There was a hint of Marilyn Monroe in her performance, but she made the role all her own and broke our hearts with her self-doubts, her dim view of her own intelligence, and her neuroses, which suggested she was doomed to unhappiness even as it seemed no one had ever deserved happiness more. And when she sang “Barcelona” with Harris, it had never seemed lovelier. In changing April to Andy, you can talk all you want about gender as a construct, but it just seems odd that Andy would tell Bobbie how dumb he is: it no longer feels confessional or sad, just slightly bizarre. The only possible attraction Andy seems to have for Bobbie is his looks, including his physique. (When Elder strips down to his briefs, they match his flight attendant’s uniform, an odd touch.) And then Elliott stages a frantic surrealistic fantasy that seems to go on forever where Bobbie imagines having a kid with him.

But it’s the changes Elliott makes in the big scene between Joanne and Bobbie that made me realize that she has no concept for the show, no idea of what it’s about, and that all she’s doing is tinkering because she thinks it’s cool. There’s no rhyme or reason to the changes she’s made, but in the 2020s, we can do whatever we want with gender, and whee, isn’t it fun? (This from the director of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the co-director of War Horse, two shows that are master classes in a how a director’s vision and concept can shape a show.) As the musical’s many fans know well, in the original Joanne hits on Bobby before telling him that he needs someone to take care of him. In this version she offers her husband (Terence Archie) to Bobbie. (I don’t know, call me old-fashioned, but maybe she should have checked with him first?) And instead of insisting that Bobbie needs someone to take care of her, she says Bobbie needs to take care of someone, which leads Bobbie to ask, “But who will take care of me?” And this is supposed to be the big epiphany. In this day and age we have a play saying that all a woman wants is to be taken care of, and it’s supposed to be some kind of breakthrough for her? This was so astonishing that I wondered initially if either LuPone or Lenk had blown her lines and had to double-check with a friend who saw it on another night to make sure. That love is about putting another person first isn’t the most original of ideas, but that love is about wanting to be taken care of is infantile. All of this happens, by the way, not at a bar or night-club, but at a high-tech disco, the one venue where any conversation at all is impossible.

The lyrics to “The Ladies Who Lunch” have not been updated, and the song, set so firmly on the cusp of the 1970s, doesn’t work in the 2020s. LuPone’s rendition succeeds as a star turn, not as a piece of characterization (as it did so brilliantly in the 2011 concert). She’s marvelous to watch, and she’s able to find new moments in the song for both humor and meaning, but because of Elliott’s tinkering with the plot details, she can’t make us believe in a person named Joanne who says these things and sings these lines. And because Elliott has no new thoughts about Bobbie other than the ticking of her biological clock, Lenk’s Bobbie is still as much of a cipher as Bobby ever was. Lenk is a prodigiously talented performer (as anyone who saw her Tony-winning turn in The Band’s Visit can confirm), and she sings her big songs, “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive,” gorgeously. (I have to say, though, the casts’ interjections during the first part of “Being Alive” annoyed the hell out of me: “Keep pushing, Bobbie!” “You’re on to something!” You’re almost there!” You wish Bobbie would tell them all to shut the fuck up. But that’s not unique to this production.)

It’s Elliott who has to take the blame for this disappointing version (and to a lesser extent Sondheim, who approved all these changes). The talented cast is clearly enjoying itself, but her futzing and gender play do nothing to address the problems that were inherent in the original material. Instead she introduces a whole slew of new ones. And the whole point of the show, that Bobby/Bobbie learns that love means putting another person first and risking being hurt, is now gone; to Elliott, love apparently means putting yourself first. Lord knows, she certainly doesn’t put either the material or the audience first. Marianne Elliott’s Company is uncompanionable.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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