In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

Yes, Michael Cerveris was naked and I was seated on the naked side and enjoyed everything I saw.

Is this crude? Well, I have seen approximately 10 billion women naked on film in my lifetime without anybody thinking that was a big deal, so when I have seen an equal number of men naked on stage, I will stop talking about it. Until such time as that happens: that will never happen.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is the 1880s, just after the invention of electricity, and the affliction du jour is female hysteria or, literally, "disease of the womb." (Perhaps you have read "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? That's a fun story.) Here, women displaying signs of "nervousness" are brought to the well-appointed home office of Dr. Givings (Cerveris), who applies treatment by means of an electrical vibrator—without observing that the curative itself is more sensual than strictly therapeutic. In other words, this is a man with zero knowledge of female orgasms, female stimulation, female sexual urges, and females, which appears to be the defining characteristic of both the Victorian-era doctor and the Victorian-era male. Who of course were one and the same.

Oh ho! I'm just the kind of feminist everybody loves!

Anyhow, into his office comes the excitable Mrs. Daldry (the aptly named Maria Dizzia), trailing her befuddled husband, whose chief complaint in regards to her current manic-depressive state is that she's no longer capable of giving him the sort of pleasure he's seeking. AND I HOPE YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN BY "PLEASURE." Because I'm running out of euphemisms. And lo, with the flip of a switch and amidst a great deal of passionate moaning, Mrs. Daldry's fortunes immediately begin to turn. That both the disease and the cure are infinitely more complicated, however, escapes the good doctor entirely. A genial and genuinely caring man, he is nevertheless in the business of patting these women on the head and sending them on their way at the end of each session. Such are the times.

His inclination is much the same with his young wife, Catherine, played by Laura Benanti, a bright and chirpy beauty who's frustrated by the fact that her husband's attention is directed at everyone and everything but her, and no less so by her inability to nurse her own newborn child. Unfulfilled by the only two roles she's fit to play, Catherine reaches out to whoever is available to her at the moment—be it the blossoming Mrs. Daldry; Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the wet nurse she hires to feed her daughter; or one of Dr. Givings' few male patients, an artist played by Chandler Williams who's come to seek solace for a broken heart.

She also spends a fair amount of time listening through the door to what goes on in the next room of her own house, and finally can't resist breaking in and trying the contraption out on herself. With sensation comes revelation, and as she compares her experience with Mrs. Daldry's and even presses her disapproving husband to practice his "therapy" on her, she comes to understand exactly what's happening to her body and her soul, and that both are in danger of fading away.

It's not a perfect show by any means, and I could bicker about the pacing (erratic) or the length (too much), or tell you the plot looped back on itself one too many times and how not all the storylines added up, or how I thought maybe Laura Benanti was supposed to be visiting from the future (so anachronistic were her line readings), but her character—all chipmunk enthusiasm in lush autumn colors—and the actors and the play itself were so winning that I just leaned back in my far right orchestra seat and let it all wash in.

Likewise I stopped tracing the actual moral of the story halfway through and focused on the relationships, and the way all of these characters came up against the gulfs that separated them because they had no language for what they needed. And in the end it seemed to be not about vibrators or sex or even female empowerment, but electricity itself—those currents that run between people, man to woman, woman to woman, mother to child. Learning how to make those connections that allow us to see each other as full human beings. Learning how to talk to each other and how to hear. How to reach out, how to touch and be touched. The simple longing for it was palpable.

And the closing image, of Michael Cerveris lying naked in the moonlight, with Laura Benanti stretching herself on top of him—her arms and legs sweeping the ground with his as they form a snow angel in a winter garden—this is communion, I thought. Not the physical act of it, but the understanding that brought them to it. This is reaching out to another person, and finally touching.

Hedda Gabler @ the American Airlines Theater

I've never seen "Hedda Gabler" before, and in fact have never even read it (where art thou, English major? Wasting a whole semester on "The Canterbury Tales," that's where. Although I doubt Ibsen wrote in English anyway, right? How would I know? I've never read it!). But after seeing nothing but horrible reviews for this latest revival, starring Mary-Louise Parker of all people—who as we know is thoroughly awesome—of course I jumped like a turkey when Sarah offered me a $0.00 ticket last night. (And a $0.00 ticket that landed us in Row J, center orchestra, which was exactly two rows behind Whoopi Goldberg.) In other words, solid gold.

Anyway, I didn't hate it, and maybe that's because my mind hasn't been sullied by other, better productions over the years. I mean, this is one of those plays everybody else seems to have seen at least a million times, and they all have their peculiarities and preferences, right? A right and a wrong way to get things done? I can understand that (hello, "A Little Night Music"), although when the role has also been also tackled by Kelly "Take My Breath Away" McGillis, I think all bets are off. (Thanks again, Wikipedia!)

Oh, it was weird, all right, but I sort of assumed that was the point: nothing but PORTENT and stylized line readings all around. Is the judge always supposed to be drunk? And Jorgen such a buttoned-up little prune? (Although this comes, obviously, from someone who still hasn't forgiven Michael Cerveris for "Lovemusik.") Whatever, it all worked for me! And I've always found MLP's delivery a bit on the "ethereal" side, like she suspects either she or anyone with whom she is conversing might actually be an alien and is only trying to bridge the extraterrestrial divide. Also according to Wikipedia's handy interpretation breakdown, I would place her portrayal decidedly in the "manipulative villain" category, which historically is one of my preferred archetypes. Plus she looks fabulous in those costumes, like one tall, translucent exclamation point (!). So, what the hell? I had a lot of fun.

Sweeney Todd: first preview

Ah Sweeney! Ah humanity! Brilliant. You could feel it in the air as you rounded the street corner and saw the crowd, the people lined up back to yonder. Abuzz: first night, first preview. The lights went down and the roar started, applause, applause, lifting us out of our seats. A small theater, intimate, immediate. Altogether like nothing I've seen before, a world re-imagined, stark and macabre, hyper-stylized and creeeeeepy. The actors (there are ten) are the musicians: when they're not singing, they play a variety of instruments. Difficult to imagine, but it works in an almost organic way, and what you lose with the natural majesty of the orchestra you gain with the clarity of the voices and lyrics. (Sidenote: Miss Patti on the tuba, orchestra bells, and percussion. And let me tell you, honey, you have not lived until you've seen Patti LuPone carting around a big ol' silver tuba onstage, shaking her fanny like nobody's business.)

The characters are patients in an insane asylum, reliving someone's monstrous nightmare. (Much ado about this treatment amongst the fanatic base: "Why mess with a classic?" as the old saw goes. Because one test of a classic is its malleabilty -- how far can it be stretched before it breaks? Can it be broken? I suppose it's possible, but I've seen three vastly different productions of Sweeney Todd, and each has succeeded in its own way. And whether this particular staging represents "reality" or functions as merely a framing device seems beside the point; it's no less effective as allegory. The story and the music are strong enough to warrant any number of interpretations, and in any event, the decision to present the action as the wild imaginings of a lunatic seems appropriate; is Sweeney ever anything other than madness? And aren't I just turning into the most pretentious ass?) Against the back wall hang costumes on hooks, and a 30-foot-tall shelf stacked with tchotchkes straight out of an olde English curiosity shop. No one leaves the stage; when they're killed, they don white hospital coats streaked with red and recollect their instruments. Pieces and props are passed back and forth, scenery is continually lifted and shifted, it's like a little Brechtian ballet. Buckets fill and refill with blood, the sound of blood spilling is amplified throughout the theater.

Michael Cerveris, bald head glaring ghoulish white beneath the spotlight, looks like a Charles Addams creation; his voice is both haunting and haunted. What can I say? He's a sexy man, and far more effective than I would have guessed. I think he can do anything. Patti comes on as a gothic Garbo in Anna Christie, all hangdog and world-weary, and morphs into a glittering, sinister Roxie Hart for Act II, glossy black wig, black eyes, bright red lips, black skirt up to there. Gone is the cartoonish busybody from her previous Sweeney outings; this is a head-to-toe reimagining, more overtly sexual and frankly predatory, and a little...sad. The things we do for love, I suppose, butchery and barbarism and baking and all that. Pity Patti. She is not an overwhelming force, though; she is equally fine at both horror and humor but fades easily into the background when she needs to. The voice is tamed to the space, which is important, because she has a tendency to go BIG on everything if allowed. There's power there, and goddamn if she isn't going to show it off. But again I digress... They are both menacing, feral, and deadly serious even when they're being wildly funny.

And with the orchestra stripped away, it's as if you are hearing the music for the first time: not something missing, but something revealed. Now almost thirty years old, it is new again, simplified and yet multiplied, magnified, completely reborn. The essence of the thing is split wide open and you have only this glorious, passionate, living...magic. I can't believe there's not some small amount of alchemy at play here, some devil's bargain made, because it is perfection.

Sunday in the Park with George @ Ravinia

White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities...

—Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Ah, details, details....

The pre-show interview: Stephen Sondheim on stage. Reason enough to live in Chicago, to love the audience that attends and listens. Posterity, he says, does not interest him. But who will be here in twenty years? Nobody. There is nobody to take his place. What he has given, what he stands for, the intelligence, the care, the craft, the light and the weight of it, it's all dying. Pay attention. Be present. Be grateful.

What we learn: they chose Seurat because his life history is a blank ("with Van Gogh, you would have to do the ear"); they could fashion any fiction they liked from the painting. Forty-eight people and not one of them is looking at anybody else. The only figure missing is the artist.

Act I: 1884. Costumes in coffees and creams, a neutral palette; you cannot compete with the colors in the painting, so why try? The effect is the same.

Audra McDonald is gorgeous but somehow too strong—too confident from the start, which hampers the evolution of her character: she is what she is the whole way through. Her voice is strong, glorious, but she frequently drowns out Michael Cerveris in their duets. He is better on his own, and freer, especially with “The Day Off,” a number I’ve always skipped on the CD. (He barks like a dog? He barks like a dog!) Some 14 years after I first heard this music, it is new for me again. A small treasure I’ve been overlooking all along. Shame on me. And as for my dear Patti: she is magic. One brief song, one brief scene, when Yvonne confesses to Dot that her husband will not paint her—“Too flat. Too...angular.”—you glimpse the inside of something.

And throughout: Seurat’s sketches projected against a blank white screen, as we see what he sees in his pad. The making of art. Staccato beats, refrains and echoes, the color, the light, the hat. The extraordinary cost of it all.

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.
Mapping out a sky,
What you feel like, planning a sky,
What you feel when voices that come
through the window
go
until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.

The end of the act is thrilling as always, the characters align and shift, pause and shift again, reach their final positions and freeze—a breath, a heartbeat, a shiver—as “the Seurats” sweep the white canvas away and you see it in full for the first time. A masterpiece. Here the presence of the orchestra onstage is obtrusive; it effectively cuts the painting in half. But that moment is enough. It is what lasts.

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday...

Act II: The characters resume their places in the painting. A long pause as the orchestra waits, as the audience waits—time suspended—for the spell to be broken. Immortality stifles. It's hot up there, and dull. They did not ask for this. The figures unfreeze, bicker and fidget and begin to break apart. The ladies lower their parasols. Seurat is "no longer," they tell us. One by one they leave the stage. Everything changes.

1984. Michael Cerveris: I can’t be the first person who sees Mike Myers doing Dr. Evil? A minor distraction, but all those poor Seurats, forced to shave their heads; goodness, that is dedication for a three-performance concert. (Note that Patti’s son was spared.) “Putting It Together”: the lyrics are a bit muddied, but it is a difficult scene, navigating levels, fixing his doubles in their places, pulling them back as they threaten to drift away. Audra as Marie is magnificent—warm, funny, calming. Here is the character, not the actress. “Children and Art” is by far her best number. In “Move On,” we revert somewhat, but her confidence fits. Dot has become the teacher.

And the finale: The characters, ghosts now, return once more to take up their poses (and again, it is thrilling), but the background rehearsal film playing over the final chords diminishes the whole. The intent is clear (and powerful: there is one shot of the actors standing in their characters’ places on the grounds of the Ravinia park, trees towering behind them; it fades to white as an image of Sondheim and James Lapine fades in), but where should my attention be? Here or there? An odd staging choice that makes what should be resonant feel rushed.

But complaints are trivial. The summer ends as all summers should, and I am reminded.

Lesson: Ask yourself every day, again and again and again, in the midst of all this deep, unknowing darkness: what is your greatest joy in life? And then find an answer.

This is mine.