It’s the Little Things

Elizabeth Stanley and Raúl Esparza in Company.Photo: Amy Arbus

A fter Sweeney Todd, I will follow John Doyle anywhere. A year ago, he found all the beauty, heartache, and badass thrills in Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece while giving the show his own adventurous spin. His new revival of Sondheim’s Company doesn’t quite measure up, but the wonderful things in it leave me admiring even more his dramatic intelligence, his uncanny knack for making theater really theatrical.

Company was a rather avant-garde success when it first reached Broadway in 1970. The plotless, contemporary show about Bobby, a bachelor whose married pals are throwing him a 35th-birthday party, won Tonys for Sondheim, librettist George Furth, and director-producer Hal Prince when it opened. Now Doyle is pushing the story even further away from the theatrical mainstream. As he did in Sweeney, he gets rid of the pit orchestra, enlisting the fourteen actors to play the score. Some traditionalists treat his departure from a century of Broadway practice as a gimmick. But I can’t see how an actor playing a trumpet is intrinsically more gimmicky than, say, farmers and cowmen bursting into song, or crapshooters dancing around in a sewer. In fact, because musicals are ultimately about the music, it almost makes more sense to do things Doyle’s way, so we can see where all that sound’s coming from.

The technique wasn’t his invention, of course: Sam Mendes gave actors instruments in Cabaret eight years ago, and even now, Striking 12, a charming if overextended downtown show, goes a step further, featuring musicians who act instead of actors who play. But Doyle makes the approach yield unusual riches. Company shows once again that he doesn’t just use it to create extra vitality onstage; for him it’s another way to illuminate the material. As in Sweeney Todd, he makes the action unfold within one character’s mind. Inside Bobby’s head, the instruments reinforce how alienated he is from the people around him. His friends play oboes and violins and things, but he doesn’t, which is fitting for an outsider who “always looks like he’s keeping score.” The instruments also show how he’s threatened by affection. When his friends shower him with love during the title song, Bobby stands by a white column at center stage, hands behind him. Surrounded by woodwinds, he looks like St. Sebastian bracing for impact.

Doyle has gotten so much press for using actor-musicians in his last two shows (though much of his other work hasn’t been staged thus) that people might miss his real directorial strength: He has an exceptionally keen eye for locating the heart of a text and an impressively stylish way of staging it. In Company, he downplays some of the domestic comedy—the squabbling spouses and so on—to emphasize the show’s existential side. There’s almost no touching in the show, and many lines are played out to the audience. When Bobby blows out his candles, there is no cake. (At that point the show could have been a radio drama, there was so little to look at onstage.) Company, never a particularly cuddly musical to begin with, has become even chillier and more difficult in Doyle’s hands.

It has also become more profound. If Sweeney Todd was like The Threepenny Opera by way of Murnau—a bleakly astringent musical with a dash of horror-film fright—this is like a Strindberg tale filtered through a Fellini egotist. Doyle makes brutally clear that marriage, in Sondheim’s view, isn’t an institution for improving your tax status or popping out babies: It’s a way of coping with the twin crises of life and death. I won’t give away the last image of the night, but in terms of cinching the show’s concerns and adding a flourish that might be brazenly metatheatrical—a gesture that has as much to do with our relationship to the scenes in Bobby’s head as to his own view of them—Company proves itself the equal of Sweeney Todd, which ended with the greatest door slam this side of A Doll’s House.

As a showman and interpreter, Doyle is impeccable; as a casting director he sometimes wobbles. The actors are mainly bland and occasionally wrong for their roles, a fault that stings all the worse in the parts of the show that have become dated, both in language (“stewardess,” “grass,” “make it”) and outlook (the young generation doesn’t look at thirtysomethings as the enemy anymore, except maybe when the grown-ups won’t stop bugging them for new MP3s). Fortunately, his most important choice was excellent. In Tick, Tick … Boom!, Comedians, and Cabaret, Raúl Esparza has flashed a mesmerizing mix of passion and irony, heat and cold. He can’t quite hide the strain of avoiding both extremes as Bobby, who’s essentially a cipher for most of the night. But when he gets to unfurl for his big closing number—with his voice and playing on an instrument, at last—it’s like being in midtown when a blackout ends.

In Stuff Happens, David Hare allowed one character to make a brief, cogent case for the Iraq war. He called this character Angry Journalist. For The Vertical Hour, which also has much to do with our Middle East debacle, he has created another prowar journalist—also angry—only this time he gives her a name. It’s a start.

At the Music Box, a war- correspondent-turned- academic named Nadia (Julianne Moore) travels to England to meet her boyfriend’s father, Dr. Oliver Lucas (Bill Nighy). She doesn’t love Bush but supported the war, he despises Bush and opposed it; she gets louder, he gets the good lines. You expect this tête-à-tête from Hare, who likes to keep abreast of the news and isn’t exactly shy about his lefty politics. But there’s a twist here that isn’t expected.

As a younger, more philandering man, Oliver did something he shouldn’t have, and people suffered as a result. It’s tenuous, but Hare implies a similarity between Oliver’s dubious ideals and the pain he caused on one hand, and America’s ostensibly humane intervention in Iraq on the other. Hare can’t bring this off without being a trifle condescending to Americans, but it’s the first treatment of Iraq I’ve seen that handles the catastrophe in a way that’s at all affirmative. It begins to look past the decision to invade, and to wonder what we do about our ideals now. Unfortunately, this momentary largeness of spirit comes wrapped in two hours of meandering drama. Nadia’s journey, which I think was intended to be subtle, is obscure, and not particularly moving.

As the louche father, Nighy has a rumpled, syncopated charm: I didn’t know what he was doing up there half the time, but I liked it. Onscreen, Moore is virtually unrivaled at using her voice and body to convey meaning; emotionally speaking, she’s translucent. But she doesn’t have the skill or the training to be half as good onstage, certainly not in the role of a forceful, battle-hardened woman like Nadia. (She cries exquisitely; she walks less well.) In fact, she’s so ineffectual it’s hard to know what Hare and director Sam Mendes really think of Nadia or how she’s supposed to relate to the other people onstage.

To put it generously, we can thank Moore for reminding us how difficult it is for trained, experienced stage actors to do what they do, and how even very talented screen actors tend to look like beginners beside them. In fact, after this play you finally know what to say if a director tells you he’s thinking of casting a celebrity in a difficult Broadway role. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I hope you’ll respond, dropping to a slightly daunted whisper. “I mean, even Julianne Moore …”

The first-act closer of Company is the poignant “Marry Me a Little,” but the song hasn’t always been there. Cut from the show during its Boston tryouts in 1970, it reappeared onstage a decade later, in a revue (also called Marry Me a Little) made up entirely of songs trimmed from Sondheim’s musicals. Since then, it’s become a cabaret staple, which may be why it was restored to Company in the composer’s 1995 rework. The Marry Me revue also included another Company reject, “Happily Ever After.” It too had been cut in Boston, having been deemed too dark to serve as a closing number, and was replaced by the uplifting “Being Alive,” which remains the finale today. Sondheim has never been satisfied with the result, calling the latter song “a cop-out.”

Lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

The Vertical Hour
By David Hare. Music Box Theatre. Through April 1.

It’s the Little Things