Side by Side

Not getting married: John Barrowman as bachelor Bobby, with the company of Company.Photo: Joan Marcus

I may have originally underrated Company because of its book by George Furth, contrived from several one-acts about the state of love in the city of New York. To tie them together, a bachelor friend, Bobby, 35, was invented. He does and doesn’t want to marry as he serially observes his friends’ conjugal problems and dallies with three fetching bachelorettes.

Bobby has no real identity: A ligament and occasional catalyst makes a poor protagonist. The five couples, conversely, have too strident, albeit simplistic, personalities: monomaniacal, mismatched, internecine. The three girlfriends are chiefly excuses for Bobby’s shilly-shallying, so we get glaring patches of clashing color revolving around a colorless blob.

But there is ample compensation in the striking songs, and the sneaky way they first underscore, then suddenly burst in on, the dialogue. These are coalescing fragments of nervous, nagging music that haunt the cynical lethargy or feverish despair of the story, teasing it into songs with angular, ironic, obsessive tunes and texts. And what sophisticated, ambushing rhymes! Take the bachelorettes’ lament about Bobby: “When a person’s personality is personable / He shouldn’t oughta sit like a lump. / It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull / To try to get you off of your rump.” The redundant “shouldn’t oughta” and “off of” contribute mundaneness, while the yoking of three similar-sounding words and a piquantly far-fetched rhyme are uniquely Stephen Sondheim.

In the Kennedy Center production, I must commend, first, Derek McLane’s set, an empty space bordered by rows of horizontal, not vertical, skyscrapers stacked on top of one another and stretching backward toward a screen on which images from abstract to representational alternated. It both alludes to and reinvents Boris Aronson’s for the original production. In the recumbent buildings, Howell Binkley’s varicolored lights, suggesting elevators or neon displays, moved back and forth. Sondheim reportedly had a hand in steadying Sean Mathias’s direction, and it shows.

The cast of fourteen was uniformly able, with Alice Ripley’s stressed-to-the-point-of-mental-fracture Amy exceptional, John Barrowman’s Bobby a shade too flimsily flighty, and Lynn Redgrave’s Joanne perhaps miscast – but who wouldn’t look so after Elaine Stritch’s nonpareil performance in the original? Jonathan Tunick, conducting his own orchestrations, added the capping touch.

James Lapine’s book for Sunday in the Park With George is, like many librettos for Sondheim, a dazzling idea. Those who saw the original one-act version on a smaller stage were bowled over. A verbal-musical evocation of Georges Seurat painting his huge masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, offers not only a pointillistic painting in the making but also a similarly starting and halting relationship between George and his fictional model and mistress, too cleverly (and un-Frenchly) called Dot.

The conflict between art and life, relentless passion for painting and flagging feelings for a lover, is beautifully captured in the hectic, foreshortened mini-stories invented for the figures in the painting, and the flailings of an artist unable to fulfill his mistress’s needs and hopes. But when, for Broadway, a second act had to be added, Lapine’s satire on twentieth-century art-making was uneasily wedded to a story about Seurat and Dot’s illegitimate daughter, Marie, and her grandson, George, a mixed-media artist; here the book huffs and puffs in the straitjacketing references to Act One, and finally thuds.

Yet the cleverness of words and music in Act One, and the great song “Children and Art” in Act Two, make up for much. In the two principal roles, Raul Esparza, as the two Georges, is delightful, although he has the unfair advantage of not being Mandy Patinkin; Melissa Errico, though rather unsubtly directed by Eric Schaeffer, is a charming Dot and Marie, even when obliged to dot her i’s. McLane’s modest-budget set provides generous background, and Linda Stephens and Cris Groenendaal head a dependable supporting cast. At the matinee I attended, the show easily beat a hot afternoon in the park.

What emerges from seeing even a partial retrospective of Sondheim musicals is that the scintillating composer-lyricist could never find a librettist up to his level. Whether by George Furth, James Goldman, James Lapine, John Weidman, or Hugh Wheeler, the books are never more than original notions competently executed. But competence goes only so far, especially when it is a vehicle greatly outclassed by what it is delivering.

The book may give us fast-talking sophisticates or winsome simpletons, but what they say and do is never as interesting as what they sing, which is so characterful and dynamic as to make the spoken stuff seem pale or redundant. It is as if a perfectly functional helicopter were loaded onto a truck able to accomplish only so much less. The exception is Forum, where Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart triumphed (albeit with a strong assist from Plautus).

It is unfortunate that first-class book writers, always a rare commodity, are scarcer than ever. Also that Sondheim, for all his gifts, is unwilling or unable to write his own books. Where it all works best is Follies, and the first act of Sunday in the Park, when the book does not even try to compete with the songs, is not even an ornamental frame, but only a plain mat for the picture. My heart goes out to all book writers: How can they soar when hemmed in by the composer-lyricist with orchestra and singers, the choreographer with dancers and dances? Perhaps Sondheim is doomed to remain the victim of his transcendence.

Back in New York, I caught the ubiquitous Marian Seldes bettering the famous fable by being both fleet-foot hare and funny turtle. Racing only against herself, she wins every time, and has become a gentler, somewhat less outré Tallulah for our time, complete with giggly camp followers. In Harry Kondoleon’s posthumously produced Play Yourself, she does amusingly exactly that, and gets staunch aid from Elizabeth Marvel and two others. But not even Craig Lucas’s ardent direction can bring to life this wan and strained comedy. It is the story of an aging, half-blind B-movie star and her neurotic daughter, rescued from their daily bickering by two social workers: An adoring old lady for the mother, a lusty young man for the daughter. Contrived? You bet.

Sondheim Festival
Company and Sunday in the Park With George, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
Play Yourself
By Harry Kondoleon, staged by Craig Lucas, and starring Marian Seldes.

Side by Side