I hadn't been out to the theatre in a while, but the marvelous Liz G. had a spare ticket to Next to Normal at Second Stage Theatre, and so I took her up on her offer of a night out. I doubted I would care much for the play, but it's been a few months since I've seen a live stage production, and my addiction is deep enough that I was in severe withdrawal.
My problem when I see new plays is that I tend to blame all faults on the script. I first noticed this back in college when I was reviewing for NYU's Washington Square News, every new (and generally painfully awful) play seemed to me to suffer from atrociously cliched and/or banal and/or pretentious and/or halfbaked and/or insipid scripts. In a city where so many actors, designers, and directors go perpetually unemployed, it was rare to see a show that was particularly badly acted, directed, or designed. Or it may be that my own focus on playwrighting caused and causes me to locate faults in the area I know best.
In any case, once again, I thought most of the problems with the show were at the basic level of the script (well, libretto, lyrics, and music in this case). The actors didn't seem quite warmed up in the first ten minutes or so, but once they found their footing, they performed with real precision and intensity, which is what made the play bearable for me -- much as I liked the idea of a musical about a manic-depressive woman and her family, the story was so predictable and uninspired, so sentimental and cloyingly movie-of-the-week in its development that it's a wonder I found the experience of watching it basically painless and occasionally pleasurable. While certainly some of the pleasure did come from scripted moments -- if he can repress his schmaltzy tendencies, Brian Yorkey has the potential to be an extraordinary lyricist, since a few of the songs have clever and affecting lines -- most came from the sheer energy of the actors, all of whom throw themselves into the material with more gusto than it deserves.
The last play I saw directed by Michael Greif was Rent, a show I basically loathe (for many reasons), though the slickness of direction that bothered me so much with Rent works better here, with a story of upper-middle-class anxiety. The set is the sort of scaffolding thing that was new and interesting in the '60s, but it works well enough here, and is served particularly well by Kevin Adams's lighting. The costume design is contemporary, of course, and the characters go through an awful lot of outfits -- the actor in me was cringing at the amount of quick-changes.
As we were talking about the show, Liz and I started wondering about the audiences that producers of new musicals must be trying to reach. It's nice to see a musical where the characters sing lines with the sort of profanity that everybody uses casually these days, but it's strange that the music sounds like it was written in the late '70s -- really, many of the songs could easily pass themselves off as trunk tunes from Neil Diamond or Anne Murray. Meanwhile, the story is one that is probably dear to the hearts of suburbanites: family dysfunction, lots of pills, kids who are over-pressured to get into Yale and so end up doing lots of pills themselves, etc. From a producer's standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to put such a show on the boards, because the audience that is going to pay $80 for a ticket to a play in NY is the kind of audience that is likely to have good memories of Neil Diamond and Anne Murray songs and is worried about all the prescriptions in the medicine cabinet. Indeed, the audience at Next to Normal seemed to truly love the show, and quite a few people gave it a standing ovation. (I don't say this as a criticism, merely an observation. Some of my best friends have fond memories of Neil Diamond and Anne Murray songs and have way too many prescriptions in their medicine cabinets. They, too, deserve musicals.)
The sad effect of all this on the American theatre is that it makes something like Threepenny Opera, a play that will reach the 80th anniversary of its premiere this summer, seem breathtakingly radical still.
But it was good to get out to the theatre again, something I need to do more often. (I'm sad that Soho Rep's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted has been postponed to October -- I had been looking forward to seeing it this spring.)
Liz brought me goodies, too, which made me tremendously happy, including the manuscript of a new novel by a writer whose first book excited me quite a bit and copies of The SFWA European Hall of Fame and the late, great Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends, a book that is an utter delight and belongs in every household. Really.
Now I must head off to more peregrinations and intemperate thoughts, some of which I am certain I shall share. Until then...