Wit Man’s Sampler

What makes Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics special is that his approach is intellectual as well as emotional. All major songwriters had sensitivity and smarts, but theirs was rarely if ever the mode of the analytical—critical and self-critical—thinker, an explorer of thought and feeling rather than their mere recorder. It is hard to demonstrate this in his music without being a musicologist writing for colleagues, but it speaks clearly and resonantly in his lyrics. So many of them, beyond the immediate appeal of their clever rhymes and whimsical images, display skeptical circumspection, paradoxical self-awareness, guarded hopefulness, or comic deflation.

There tends to be an overarching irony, in which every assertion casts a shadow similar to it in shape and yet its opposite. This is present in the music as well as in the words, since, like most of the best, Sondheim writes both. Stephen Sondheim: Opening Doors is the David Kernan revue that originated in England and, after a version in California, arrived, further retuned, for a scant ten performances in Zankel Hall. What it demonstrates through 45 songs or song fragments (including three with music by Leonard Bernstein or Jule Styne) is the almost dizzying variety of the work together with its always unmistakable Sondheimness. What impresses is that some of the least-known songs are every bit as good as the most famous ones. (Take this lyric, from the movie Reds: “Goodbye for now again/ Goodbye until whenever then / We’re free / That’s what we said we’d be / At leave to come and go / You as well as I / Somehow each hello / Makes it worth / Goodbye for now.”)

“The five performers are remarkable—adept at singing, dancing, and, above all, acting the songs.”

The uncredited set consists of a number of different-size platforms ascending stepwise into what might be considered an incipient ziggurat. Behind it is an enormous screen onto which are projected slides mostly of Sondheim at various periods, but also of collaborators and interpreters. With these images, Sondheim’s voice offers artistic, existential, and autobiographical insights in a nice blend of wit, modesty, and self-assurance.The songs meld well-known with many more little- or barely known numbers from diverse mediums, quite a few cut from various shows. They are sometimes loosely connected thematically, and at times acted out as playlets, though differently from the way in their sources. The five performers are not only remarkable in themselves—adept at singing, dancing, and, above all, acting the songs—but also complement one another superbly. There is the earthy, slightly brash Victoria Clark, the sweetly girlish and a mite tomboyish Kate Baldwin, the dapperly boyish, full-throated Gregg Edelman, and the lithe song-and-dance man Eric Jordan Young, with a voice as finely calibrated as a pipe organ. Also, the quintessentially feminine Jan Maxwell, instinct with something like supernatural grace, whereby her very hair dances, and her slightest gesture, expression, or intonation is an arrow to the heart.

The choreography by James Scott Wise is simple but highly suggestive; Jane Greenwood, as costume consultant, and Vivien Leone, as lighting designer, contribute visual lyricism. Jason Carr’s exquisite musical arrangements are perfectly executed by Rob Berman (piano), Mairi Dorman (cello), and Dick Sarpola (bass). If Opening Doors, with the same forces, is not picked up for a more extended stay elsewhere, there must be no un-brain-damaged producer left.

If Sondheim disagrees with my assessments, no matter. In one of his voice-overs, he mentions that he reads solely the Times reviews, the only ones that matter, unless a well- or ill-meaning friend calls his attention to some interesting comments in another publication, which, “this being America,” he says, “is almost never.”

I can see no valid reason for reviving Craig Lucas’s absurdist comedy Reckless, other than that it provides the delightful Mary-Louise Parker with a bouncy star vehicle. That, to be sure, may be excuse enough. She plays Rachel, a rather garrulous and kooky but lovable wife and mother, whose husband, Tom, takes out a contract on her life on a snowy Christmas Eve, her favorite holiday. Growing up, she says, she “wanted to live in Alaska because it always snowed and Santa was up there, so it must always be Christmas.” Tom, in bed with Rachel, informs her that in five minutes a professional killer will break in and shoot her; the best she can do is to escape in her nightie and slippers out the window into the snowy night.

She hitches a ride with a man named Lloyd Bophtelophti, who, as she has nowhere to go, takes her to Springfield, Massachusetts, into the home he shares with his girlfriend Pooty, who appears to be paraplegic and deaf and dumb. However, it turns out that almost nobody is what or who he or she claims to be; names and identities keep changing, Rachel’s most of all. She takes a file clerk’s job in a peculiar welfare agency, and embarks on a bizarre career, about which I can tell you only that it involves two comic deaths, a picaresque progress through motels in various Springfields (there’s one in every state), sessions with six equally weird analysts, and appearances on a couple of loony TV shows.

The play is sporadically funny, and benefits from direction by Mark Brokaw, sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by Michael Krass, and lighting by Christopher Akerlind that make the most of its elaborate absurdities. Rachel evolves in fantastic ways, and Parker embodies her diverse and incredible selves with a wonderfully baffled innocence and, later, touching mutism. Michael O’Keefe as Lloyd, and Rosie Perez, Debra Monk, Thomas Sadoski, and Jeremy Shamos in multiple madcap roles, abet her valiantly. The underlying motif is the multiplicity of personality and lability of identity, which results in even Reckless only seeming to be a play.

The dependably annoying English theater company Cheek by Jowl visited BAM with its Othello. The director, Declan Donnellan, and his partner, the designer Nick Ormerod, have once again produced a mess. Ormerod’s set is merely five coffin-shape boxes sometimes moved around; Donnellan’s staging is an entire cast running around, often in circles, as if the large, near-empty stage were a gym. In modern dress, and with Iago speaking an opaque working-class English, Cassio an Ivy League–ish youth who goes in for S&M flagellation from Bianca, and Roderigo an archetypal nerd, we are in trouble. People talk pressed together like bookends or in frequent shouts across the entire width of the stage, with nonspeaking characters in between; absent characters hang around the fringes, characters speak not facing but parallel to their interlocutors; and so on.

Nonso Anozie, the Othello (a clear case of Moor is less), is a huge man with a baby face and comic expressions, speaking with the strenuous enunciation of a drama student in an elocution exercise. Strangling his tiny Desdemona, he holds her well aloft with her legs stretched wide apart, as in some strange form of calisthenics. Iago runs around the auditorium profusely, and yells come at you from all directions. Caroline Martin might be fine as a spunky Desdemona, but is so small as to look less like Othello’s wife than his dinner. The best performance is the Emilia of Jaye Griffiths, a striking presence with a veritable lion’s mane and a deep, mellifluous voice she uses powerfully. At the end, there is a weird suggestion that Iago really cared about Othello and that Emilia might be in love with Desdemona, but by then the lot of them might as well have sat down for a picnic.

Richard III, profoundly misdirected by Peter DuBois, has the dwarf Peter Dinklage in the lead. A dwarf Richard goes against the lines of the text, cannot be the stout swordsman who elicits awe in the end, forces actors opposite him into stooping, crouching, kneeling, or sitting, and is supremely incredible in the wooing scene, granted that Kali Rocha, his Lady Anne—as a chubby-faced Valley Girl foolishly rattling off her lines—is unspeakable.

Now, what if that dwarf cannot even act the part—often compensatorily bellowing at top voice (though others also assault our eardrums), winking broadly at the audience, jumping up on furniture, and having lilliputian tantrums? Add a dismal supporting cast, in which the only fully convincing performance is that of the rather marginal Catesby (Harry Barandes) and the young Princes (Connor Paolo and Peter Vack) are at least likable. Special mention must be made of the fishwifely Queen Elizabeth of Mercedes Herrero, the smart-ass contemporary Buckingham of Ty Burrell, the half-dead but still stentorian Edward IV of Tom Nelis (blame also the director), the ill-spoken Brackenbury of Jojo Gonzalez (there are more accents than at the U.N.), and Shane McRae, poor even as the near-mute Lord Grey, returning as the heroic Richmond as a pouty milksop. What we’ve got here is a Richard the Third-rate, if that.

Wit Man’s Sampler