Graffiti Isn’t Easy

The Kids Stay in the Pictures: From left, Daniel Reichard as Keith Haring, Aaron Lohr as his lover, and Keong Sim as Haring's friend, in Radiant Baby.Photo: Michal Daniel

Ornament and caricature can join hands and go straight to Sell without ever passing Art. Proof thereof is the work of Keith Haring, an artistic zero whose drawings are crass contours encircling a blank; that same hollowness duly characterizes Radiant Baby, the musical about this pseudo-artist.

Along with music by Debra Barsha, who labors under the delusion that a manic beat can make up for absence of melody, Radiant Baby has a book by Stuart Ross and lyrics by Ross, Barsha, and Ira Gasman. Incidental felicities do occur, as George C. Wolfe comes up with some directorial ideas, and Fatima Robinson with some choreographic ones. Even so, Robinson’s mostly disco dancing is overshadowed by the all-too-brief break dancing of the wizardly Christopher Martinez.

Wolfe was right to have Riccardo Hernández’s scenery consist mostly of movable white panels onto which the clever Batwin + Robin Productions projects Haring’s drawings and designs with the same brazenness and brio with which Haring attacked exposed walls, refrigerator doors, and empty advertising panels in the subways. When, however, it comes to telling a story, the show settles for crude outlines with nothing within. Yet it does have a convincingly hyperkinetic and monomaniacal Haring in Daniel Reichard, a devoted secretary in Kate Jennings-Grant, a persuasive photographer friend in Keong Sim, and a vociferously suffering lover in Aaron Lohr; also, a generally animated supporting cast that includes three likable kids as Greek chorus. They provide liveliness, if not exactly life.

Defending herself against Marcel’s jealous charges, Proust tells us, Albertine would spontaneously use “those brusque leaps of syntax resembling what grammarians call anacoluthon or whatever.” Sitting through My Life With Albertine, the musical by Richard Nelson and Ricky Ian Gordon based on portions of Proust’s giant novel, I often prayed for an anacoluthon. With deadly predictability, the show kept reprising numbers and, worse yet, reiterating commonplace phrases in the lyrics. An anacoluthon or whatever would have been manna from heaven. Nelson (book, lyrics, direction) and Gordon (music, lyrics), in extracting the Albertine sections, stayed mostly with Proust’s own words. Act One is not without a couple of nice tunes but also a lot of whatever. Act Two is not anacoluthon but anathema. For starters, Proust wrote no lyrics. Take the very first here, sung by Albertine before the curtain, which begins with a plea to be taken back, and continues: “Whatever you decide, / Whatever you decide, / I shall abide / by your decision.” And a bit later, “Impatiently waiting. / Insatiably longing. / I shall board the train at once if you say to me ‘return.’ / Oh, I burn to know. / I yearn to know,” etc. The entire longish number is reprised in Act Two. Some of this is Proust, but none of it is a lyric.

The unhappy concept is that the whole show is being performed in a private theater erected in the Narrator’s living room. Center stage is that preposterous theater; right and left are bits of period living room, where the actors not in a given scene can change, provide an offstage chorus, or just cool their heels. The next infelicity is having the Narrator (mature Proust reminiscing) and Marcel (young Proust blithering) often chat with each other or jointly squabble with Albertine. Narrator and Marcel are now composers, often tickling the ivories with Gordon’s music. Promising in Act One, it wearies in Act Two.

The good Brent Carver comes to grief trying to be cute as the Narrator; as Marcel, Chad Kimball, delightful as a cow in Into the Woods, lacks charm decowed. Kelli O’Hara has great red hair and sings well, but is more Irish barmaid than Albertine. Enough said.

What made Katharine Hepburn special was not her acting (good but limited); rather, it was her star persona, terrific looks, crisp demeanor, and that unforgettable Bryn Mawr–accented voice. As she said about a boat in The Philadelphia Story, she was yare—i.e., quick, agile, responding easily. And there was that coltish sexiness that later evolved into haughty grande dame distinction.

Now Kate Mulgrew portrays her in Matthew Lombardo’s Tea at Five, an almost two-hour one-woman show. Such an act is less acting than impersonation unless the writing is inspired and the performer brilliant. Let us take stock: On the credit side, the actress has the vocal and physical mannerisms down pat as she paces about convincingly in the Hepburn Connecticut home, throwing herself on the furniture with headstrong abandon. Her Paul Huntley wigs are good, and she has the right first name. On the debit side, she is stockier and less fine-featured than Hepburn, and cannot quite transcend the mostly shopworn anecdotes and second-rate dialogue Lombardo provides. What you finally get from Tea at Five is not exactly heartburn, but neither is it Hepburn.

Julian Sheppard’s Buicks is so well written, so honestly unmanipulative, and so droll and touching as to deserve the categorical imperative GO! Bill, a crass Fresno Buick dealer, is justifiably abandoned by his wife and two children, presumably to join her parents in Albuquerque. Bill sets off in pursuit via Buick, taking along a young employee, the illegal Mexican immigrant Naranja, desperate for a green card. Surprising but believable things happen on their fascinating journey.

Brian Kulick has elicited first-rate performances from Norbert Leo Butz, Olivia Birkelund, and Bill Buell in five roles. A newcomer, Lucia Brawley, is sensational as Naranja, never dropping a perfect Spanish accent in the toughest scenes, and giving a performance with facial play, intonation, timing, and body language down to her toes to guarantee imminent stardom. For a girl named Orange, she’s quite a peach.

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Radiant Baby
New musical based on the life of Keith Haring, staged by George C. Wolfe.

My Life With Albertine
New musical by Richard Nelson and Ricky Ian Gordon.

Tea at Five
Starring Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn.

New play by Julian Sheppard, staged by Brian Kulick.

Graffiti Isn’t Easy