Live and Learn

Photo: Aaron Epstein

Grief, as a subject for popular art, is damned hard to get right, and Friendship is nearly as bad. In both cases, the more universal and “accessible” the treatment, the more awkward the results (as anyone who’s sat, white-knuckled, in a pew, while a loved one is eulogized by some infuriatingly well-intentioned stranger can attest). That’s why most young artists simply opt for love-and-death and call it a day. So Broadway newcomers Neil Bartram and Brian Hill are to be commended for their bravery: their tender, if undercooked, musical, The Story of My Life, tackles grief and friendship—though it’s a gentle tackle, to be sure, and there’s a lot of padding involved. Imagine the complete works of Mitch Albom, underscored by George Winston, and you’re getting there.

Story’s basic flavors are familiar enough: a mouthful of Merrily We Roll Along, a bouquet of The Last Five Years, and notes—maybe even whole chords—of William Finn’s Elegies (for my money, the finest songs about loss ever written for musical theater). We begin with Tom (Will Chase), a “multi-award-winning, best-selling author” who returns to his Podunk hometown to deliver the eulogy for his estranged childhood pal Alvin (Malcolm Gets), and finds himself lost for words and stymied by guilt: Did he abandon sensitive, literate Alvin, his unheralded muse, to this Palin-esque hole while jetting off to become a literary bigshot? Did he plunder his best stories from Alvin’s drab little life as the long-suffering, motherless son of an ailing bookshop owner? And (spoiler alert) did all of this contribute to Alvin’s suicide, dramatically consummated as an homage to his favorite movie, It’s A Wonderful Life? Who’s the George Bailey in this scenario? Who’s the guardian angel? “Am I to blame,” Tom sings, in a typically self-absorbed moment, “for all the details I’ll never know?” Al himself then obligingly appears, a passive-aggressive memory-ghost, and assures Tom that, yes, he is absolutely to blame.

If Alvin then went on to give Tom a good hard haunting, maybe sparks would fly. But the sentiments here, and the music that animates them, are mostly harmless: there’s a lot of lush, lovely melodic maundering, but no signal theme or idea asserts itself. (Though surely, there must be some kind of “Middlebrow Award” for a lyric like: “You haven’t had more than a bite of your tuna tartare / Or the hummus.”) Gets and Chase are charming in their given modes (huggable flaming spaz and flinty, furtive jock), but, as written, these characters are essentially a couple of major-league narcissists, the differing trajectories and luminosities of their lives notwithstanding. Big-city egotist eulogizes small-town solipsist: Now, there’s a story—albeit a darker one than Bartram and Hill are prepared to tell. As Tom and Al rush around, literally pulling the stories of their lives off a towering white bookshelf (a monolithic setpiece that variously represents Tom’s memory, Al’s life, and the show’s irredeemably generic, blank-page of a soul), you may find yourself wondering about the other, better stories they withhold, the stories we’re not being told—the stories on those high upper shelves, out of easy reach. –SB

Over in Brooklyn, Mabou Mines has refashioned Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by casting all the male parts with little people. You get much the same impression—of the women looming over the men—watching the New Group’s production of Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s epic 1931 refashioning of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. It’s a rarely produced, four-hour-plus monster, O’Neill at his most Shakespearean, and that alone is almost reason enough to see this revival. Almost.

Lili Taylor as Christine Mannon, a powerful Northern matron welcoming home her Civil War–hero husband with some poison pills, and Jena Malone as Lavinia, the daughter bent upon avenging his death, spend the first two acts of this stem-winder trying to catch each other in rare moments of honesty, the better to press their advantage. To portray the Mannon house, “built in hate,” the designers have opted for portentous black fabric, dark wicker, and a soundtrack that seems commissioned for a collaboration between Ken Burns and David Lynch. The folksy and the “queer” battle for thematic primacy as fiercely as the two women.

Taylor plays Christine as Lady Macbeth with fewer boundaries, while Malone is Hamlet with fewer qualms. Their battles occasionally spark with emotive brilliance, and Malone’s later transformation from righteous warrior to a spitting image of her mother is a proud feat for a 24-year-old theater novice. Meanwhile, the men—a war hero, his death-haunted son, and his wife’s cousin and then lover—are meant to provide strong moral counterpoints and some knockout speeches. But every one of those actors falls short. Anson Mount, as Christine’s conniving suitor, blurs the line between caddish sea-captain and sleazy hipster (his bushy beard fits both types easily), and Joseph Cross almost completely squanders the part of Lavinia’s brother Orin. He’s gee-whiz wholesome when digressing on the horrors of the battlefield, and a mama’s boy where a twisted Oedipal monster should be. Mark Blum as stalwart Ezra Mannon tips entirely over to farce in a jiggly death scene out of a Hamlet spoof.

You’d definitely have to call this a problem play—almost unmanageably long and all externalized emotion. Director Scott Elliott tackles this problem by cutting (not enough) exposition and simply having everyone talk faster. Taylor races angrily through the first act; Mount just seems marble-mouthed. Only Malone and Cross find a little space for their parts (for better and worse, respectively). As a result, this Greek tragedy redux never achieves catharsis. The best it can manage is a few stunned silences and a whole lot of nervous laughter. –BK

The Story of My Life
Booth Theatre

Mourning Becomes Electra
Acorn Theatre

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