"Sometimes I see him looking, and looking. I just look right back."
We saw the new revival of Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY the other night. There's been a lot of buzz about this production, as it is directed by John Doyle, who gave us last year's revival of SWEENEY TODD in which the cast doubled as the orchestra, and features Raul Esparza who recently came out in the New York Times as being not entirely gay or straight or even particularly bisexual, but kind of ambivisexual, which is supposed to mean that he can relate to Bobby, the commitment-phobic hero of COMPANY. Mr. Esparza's Bobby is particularly effective, a lost soul navigating around a series of married Scyllas and Charybdeses. His final outburst, the song "Being Alive," is one of the more moving things you'll see in a theatre this year. He manages to be funny, sexy, charming, and yet still believably lonely. The cast plays their instruments ably, and they sing and act their assorted roles very well.
Maybe a little too well. The big problem with the show is the book by George Furth, which is basically a series of sketches of apparently unhappy or endearingly quirky married couples (including one married couple-to-be) as they interact unhappily or endearingly quirkily, while Bobby watches and wonders, "What do you get out of this whole marriage thing?" As my partner Bob said afterward, the problem with sketches is that they are sketchy. The book is never quite as good as it wants to be and thinks it is, and is often just plain dated. One scene involving Bobby and his scene partners getting sitcomishly giggly after smoking pot is right out of Love American Style, and there is an unironic use of the term "generation gap." The actors (under Doyle's direction) do their considerable best, but they may be working too hard, aiming for a "seriousness" that the material just can't bear. For example, the sketch ending Act One centers on Amy and Paul, who are just about to get married. The great comic song "Getting Married Today" is the highlight of the scene, and is pulled off gorgeously, but the scene soon turns very sour, as Amy displays more than sitcom-level nerves, finally calling off the wedding altogether, causing Paul to leave very near tears. Of course, in true sketch-comedy fashion, Amy comes to her senses and runs off to find Paul and go through with the wedding, but it just doesn't wash. Amy's terror-turning-into-rage and Paul's bemused tolerance-turning-into-despair are so vividly and painfully realized that I found it impossible to believe that the wedding would go on. Who on earth would marry Amy after that? There's "good and crazy" and there's "flat-out stupid."
That caveat aside, though, the production works beautifully, fluid and exciting during the musical numbers if significantly less so during the frankly underwritten dialogue scenes. (at least we're not treated to any visits from ghosts of the past) The set and costumes and lighting are excellent. The score is just amazing. I don't see how anyone with a functioning nervous system can fail to get goosebumps during that opening number, especially as staged by Mr. Doyle and performed by this cast. And the songs keep coming, "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and "Barcelona" and "Another Hundred People" and "Side By Side By Side" and on and on, all inventively staged and perfectly performed.
Bottom line: see it. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself waiting rather impatiently for the next song.