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One Singular Sensation

A Class Act -- an amusing if limited musical about a Broadway one-hit wonder -- lives up to its title; Alice in Bed should immediately be put to sleep.

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A Class Act is a cute little musical that Linda Kline and Lonny Price have contrived from the songs of the late Edward Kleban, whose dream was to write Broadway musicals. A cantankerous individual, not good at collaboration, Kleban died relatively young. Lightning struck only once: He wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line. But he wanted his music to be as successful as his words, which did not come to pass.

The show is narrated by the dead Kleban, usually a tiresome device but here quite effective, as he is nimbly enacted and sassily sung by Price, he of the comically rabbinical looks, who is also the show's director and co-author. We see Ed mostly as a student in the tightly knit BMI Musical Theater Workshop presided over by the legendary, sharp-tongued Lehman Engel. Here Ed first made some noise, a female fellow student or two, and a fairly general nuisance of himself. Still, the story of the workshop class (hence the show's title) and Kleban's subsequent half-life in show business -- John Gielgud's firing him from the revival of Irene, etc. -- makes for an entertaining evening, studded with pleasant enough Kleban songs.

For anyone knowledgeable or curious about the frantic ups and downs of Broadway hopefuls, the show has many a droll reminder or revelation; others, less interested in such peripeties, may be somewhat less amused. Yet the songs, though seldom outstanding, are enjoyable, and the cast is solid. Especially good are Randy Graff, as the philandering Ed's longtime biologist girlfriend who finally walks, and the dependably hilarious Jonathan Freeman, as Lehman Engel. Good work, too, from Nancy Kathryn Anderson, Carolee Carmello, Julia Murney, and Ray Wills, all in multiple roles, with Wills particularly funny as Marvin Hamlisch, composer of the music for A Chorus Line. Only David Hibbard does not quite get the quiddity of that show's guiding force, Michael Bennett.

There is also an inexpensive but utilitarian set by James Noone, niftily tongue-in-cheek costuming by Carrie Robbins, and engaging choreography by Scott Wise and Marguerite Derricks. Price's staging brings it all bouncily together.

Having successfully loused up Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams for New York Theatre Workshop, the unstoppable Dutchman Ivo van Hove, one of the world's worst directors, now spews his inanities over Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed. But whereas More Stately Mansions and A Streetcar Named Desire make sovereign sense, befouling them also made perverted sense: Relieving oneself on a Raphael Madonna produces a powerfully repellent effect. But the fellow who defecates on a dead dog merely courts condign contempt.

When Alice in Bed appeared in book form (1993), I began my review of it in The New Criterion as follows: "Susan Sontag has sounded off in many genres on diverse subjects, so it is not surprising to find her essaying the stage as well. Alice in Bed is, as she tells in a postface, the conflation of her vision of Alice James, the gifted but neurasthenic younger sister of William and Henry, with her notion of Lewis Carroll's Alice. The two have nothing in common except their first name and their century. But a determined conflator is undeflatable: Had Miss Sontag chosen to meld Edith Sitwell and Edith Cavell, they would have proved equally miscible."

Miss Sontag, an intelligent but majestically pretentious writer whose ambition often exceeds her reach, must have set herself the task of writing a difficult work worthy of Dadaist, Surrealist, absurdist, and postmodern arcana. If they could be opaque, preposterous, illogical, and shocking, why, so could she make them -- in spades. And she succeeded brilliantly: Nothing could be more opaque and preposterous than Alice except Ivo van Hove's staging of it, which adds a further blend of arrogance, lunacy, and incompetence in a scenario of obfuscation all its own. The result is superfetation and miscarriage or, perhaps more aptly, necrophilic rape.

There is, for instance, a tea party in the play, remotely reminiscent of Carroll, attended by Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, Kundry (from Parsifal), Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (from the ballet Giselle), and the heroine's dead mother. Dickinson says things like: "He came in, he had a goatee. Death. The frogs were singing. They have such pretty lazy times. How nice to be a frog!" Or: "I trust that my flowers have the good grace to be seared by our shouts." Kundry says: "Kundry's visions are the most terrible . . . I must be punished. My body wants -- but I don't. It wants, it's so big, I can't I don't want, he wants, he makes me, but I want to, I want to first . . ." In a five-page fantasy about Rome, where she's never been, Alice soliloquizes: "I would be very humble. Who am I, compared with Rome. I come to see Rome, it doesn't come to see me. It can't move." The play ends with Alice saying, "Let me fall asleep. Let me wake up. Let me fall asleep." To which her nurse replies, "You will."

Although it is all highfalutin balderdash, a semblance of sense does surface here and there -- for example, in the scenery and the cast of characters. That is what Van Hove sets out to extirpate. Right off the bat, he has Joan MacIntosh, who plays Alice, deliver not only her lines but also the eliminated nurse's, growled out an octave or two lower. Instead of lying on a bed in her room, Alice is perched on a slanting stick-figure outline of a recumbent human form, which must be as uncomfortable as appearing in this play and production would be if actors had perspective on what asininities they are made to perform.

Alice is surrounded throughout by some 30 or 40 wires from which relevant or irrelevant objects dangle and jiggle, with wildly colored lights bathing them in further confusion. Another actor, a young, bumbling burglar (probably cribbed from Shaw's Misalliance), is live; seven important others are video projections upon a variety of sprouting and collapsing sheets, while other off-the-wall projections -- a mouth, a teapot -- race around the walls of the auditorium. Something near-impossible to follow had the near surgically removed.

The ludicrous set design is by Jan Versweyveld, which must be a cognate of the German verzweifelt, "desperate" -- a good description of the entire enterprise.


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