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Soap Operas

Problematic to begin with, the dour Caroline, or Change loses steam in the move to Broadway; animal repulsion rules Prymate’s monkey business.


Tonya Pinkins's gifts get short shrift in Caroline, or Change.  

Good works get richer with repeated exposure; the operatic musical Caroline, or Change, transferred to Broadway, seems, on second viewing, poorer. The story centers on the relationship of an 8-year-old Jewish boy, Noah Gellman, with his family’s black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, in the Louisiana of 1963. But it touches on other things: Noah’s father, Stuart, playing the clarinet and avoiding his responsibilities; the boy’s coldness toward his new, Yankee stepmother, Rose (his mother died a year earlier); Rose and Caroline’s ambivalence toward each other; and the divorced Caroline’s relationship with her three younger children, chiefly 16-year-old Emmie (Larry, the eldest, is serving in Vietnam).

The washing machine, a black woman; the dryer, a black man; the radio, a Supremes-like trio—all talk to Caroline as she does the wash in the basement. Later, the bus, another black man, taking Caroline and a friend home, brings news of the assassination of President Kennedy, who might have done more to improve the lot of African-Americans; still later, the moon also chimes in.

The Gellman house is the only one in Lake Charles that has a basement, where Caroline launders; otherwise, as the text keeps reiterating, there “ain’t no underground / in Louisiana . . . / There is only / underwater.” Tony Kushner, the book writer and lyricist, clearly sees some deep symbolic significance in this fact that never comes clear in his partly autobiographical and almost wholly sung-through work with music by Jeanine Tesori. The operative concept is a pun on the meanings of “change.” It is what Emmie foresees for her race and herself but what Caroline is reluctant to adopt even though the radio advocates it (while the washing machine and dryer seem unconvinced). What the moon purports—and why it even figures as a character (though, of course, it changes)—remains uncertain.

But then there is change in the sense of coins, which the forgetful Noah keeps leaving in his pants, and which Caroline retrieves. Rose tries to break Noah of the habit, which only makes him more obdurate, whereupon she instructs Caroline to keep what coins she finds. The text tries to connect this small change with all sorts of large phenomena, from Noah’s reaction to his unloved stepmother to the nascent civil-rights movement, a burden the far-fetched and overworked conceit cannot bear. Unexpiated liberal guilt permeates the proceedings; events of personal meaning to Kushner fail to involve us, and even the clever music, mostly pastiche, loses some of its charm upon rehearing: It goes after operatic effects in large ensembles, crying out for surtitles, and the Da Ponte–like repetitions in the uneven lyrics now seem irritatingly out of date.

Riccardo Hernández’s scenery, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting are functional. George C. Wolfe’s direction gets the job done with a competent cast, though as Caroline, the gifted Tonya Pinkins is shortchanged by her material. Veanne Cox and Anika Noni Rose come off best, as, respectively, Rose and Emmie. But there is less to all this than meets the eye and ear.

Mark Medoff always struck me as a questionable playwright, but not until now, with Prymate, a hysterical and incoherent one. Dr. Avrum Belasco, a research geneticist, and Dr. Esther Leeper, a linguistic anthropologist, were fellow experimenters and lovers who worked with a gorilla, Graham; deaf and dumb Esther was teaching him language, while Avrum was interested in him as a guinea pig for aids research. When the couple had a falling-out, Esther absconded with Graham into a cottage in the New Mexico wilderness. After seven months, Avrum had her tracked down, and arrives at the cottage with young and pretty Allison, an American Sign Language interpreter.

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