Half-light can be forgiving—to the aging, to the vain, to the furtive philanderer—but in Trevor Nunn’s stunning, twilit, devastatingly good new production of A Little Night Music, it’s as punishing as the equatorial sun. Even at intermission, Nunn withholds full illumination, dimming the house lights to a low smolder. He’s clearly trying to induce an exquisitely heartbreaking case of seasonal affective disorder in his audience, and, fiendishly, he succeeds. “Perpetual sunset,” the chorus sings, “is rather an unsettling thing.” So is this beautiful re-Bergmanized revival of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s elegiac sex farce (based on Smiles of a Summer Night), with its restored Nordic tilt, its bracing draughts of carnal realpolitik, and its ghostly blue ache of some-requited love. “It’s the latitude,” says the jaded ex-jade Madame Armfeldt (Angela Lansbury), explaining the madness of Scandinavians to her granddaughter (Keaton Whittaker). “A winter when the sun never rises, a summer when the sun never sets, are more than enough to addle the brain of any man.”
That endless in-betweenness is certainly enough to addle Frederik Egerman (Alexander Hanson, reprising the role that won him much-deserved acclaim at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, where this production and 2007’s similarly superb Sunday in the Park with George originated). He’s a middle-aged lawyer with a virgin child-wife (the wonderfully batty Ramona Mallory, a Broadway newcomer), a tortured seminarian for a son (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, also new, also great, also batty), and an unscratchable itch for an old coeval and discarded bedmate, one Desiree Armfeldt (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a freewheeling actress-of-a-certain-age who’s beginning to tire of life on the circuit. Desiree’s also weary of her current paramour, a jealous and narcissistic dragoon (Aaron Lazar), and happily jettisons him for another shot at securing Frederik and finally settling down. Throw in the dragoon’s vengeful, co-dependent wife (Grey Gardens’ fantastic Erin Davie, her timing impeccable) and a serving girl (Gypsy’s fearless Leigh Ann Larkin) who subscribes to the Philip Roth school of erotic realism, and the board is set: Infidelities crisscross like party streamers, lies and suspicions accumulate, pistols and rapiers and strategically placed “hip-baths” are drawn.
Soon, all parties are waltzing in broken time from partner to partner, trying to end the next step on the right foot and wondering, all the while, why it’s worth the effort. Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s terminally unimpressed mama, owlishly oversees it all, recalling grander days and more glittery peccadilloes, and delivering one of Sondheim’s greatest rhymes: “What once was a sumptuous feast / Is figs. / No, not even figs — raisins. / Ah, liaisons!” Lansbury, who capsizes the theater with every roll of those outsize eyes, hurls mots from her throne like thunderbolts—not a single line lands askew.
ALNM is among Sondheim’s near-perfect creations, but it’s not without its challenges, over and above the complexity of the music: Maunder overmuch and the show’s a drag; shine up the comedy and it risks coming off as a yuppie you-can-have-it-all manifesto. Maintaining that balance is the job of Desiree and Frederik, and Zeta-Jones—a tremendous presence here, in great voice—mates up with Hanson perfectly: They play Desiree and Frederik as extremely magnetic, fabulously charming, utterly empty people. I say this admiringly: Yes, they have feelings, deep and complex; yes, despite their many sins, they deserve love as much as anyone. But neither Zeta-Jones—whose “Send in the Clowns” is a shattering cry from the void—nor Hanson nor Nunn makes any excuses for the pair’s intrinsic emotional vacuity or their confessed inability to transcend themselves in any sort of human union. They’re cool, at best, to their children, genially indifferent to their peers, and they see, in one another, smoked-mirror reflections of themselves. They cancel each other—and, in the half-light, that’s good enough.