Exit Lines: Off Key

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

High and low notes Off Broadway, with Isabelle Huppert as The Mother.

As the Broadway season comes to its end Off Broadway…rolls along, to appropriate the title of one of a trio of shows currently playing away from the Main Stem.

The star attraction is Isabelle Huppert, ranting and raving as The Mother. An actress once noted for her stillness in the films of Claude Chabrol and other European auteurs has been getting her freak on recently, in movies like Greta and the Oscar-nominated Elle. She’s unbound and uninhibited once more in Florian Zeller’s play, a companion to The Father, for which Frank Langella won a Tony in 2016.

In that one Langella, stricken with dementia, was attacked by the constantly rearranging set as his memories faded in and out. In The Mother, Huppert attacks Mark Wendland’s set, which as the show opens is dominated by a long and fancy white sofa that seems to cage her. Anne (listed as “The Mother” in the Playbill) will bust out of its confines over its 90 minutes, as the anxieties of empty nest syndrome take its toll on her mental health. Peter, her husband (aka “The Father,” it’s that kind of show), tries to calm her, but his entreaties, coupled with her suspicion that he’ll be cheating on her during his impending business trip, have the opposite effect. Compared to his petite co-star the solid, sheepish Chris Noth is like an oak tree up there on the Atlantic’s stage, yet Anne cuts him down to size with her withering remarks and erratic behavior. 

As Anne drinks and pop pills “The Son” (Nicolas, played by Justice Smith) arrives, and mom seeks to possess him, or maybe seduce him. “The Girl” (Odessa Young) then slinks onto the scene, and Anne tries to compete for Nicolas’ affections by wearing the same revealing red dress she’s got on. Well, maybe; it could all be one substance-addled dream, and scenes are replayed from different perspectives, letting Huppert flail about as victim or villain. If all of this sounds weird rest assured that it isn’t, or it isn’t weird enough. There’s something very studied about The Mother, and all that eccentricity, even enacted by a master accompanied by clever lighting cues and projections and other production sleight of hand, becomes repetitive. Freud may be dead, but he and his fixations are unkillable. In a humorous irony the strongest and most mysterious element of the play occurs when its star is sitting on the couch, leafing through a book–which is to say, before The Mother actually begins, so get there early.

After 25 years of theatregoing I’ve finally seen productions of all of Stephen Sondheim’s major musicals. A flop in 1981, Merrily We Roll Along, (whose production and reception are recalled in the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened) eluded me despite a half-life of restagings, culminating (for now) in the Fiasco Theatre’s top-to-bottom “revisal” at the Roundabout. True to its title the troupe has, with Sondheim’s blessing, steamrolled over it, reducing it to one act and a handful of performers, making merry on a Derek McLane set that looks like the furniture shop in Arthur Miller’s The Price, now brimming with showbiz tchotchkes.

Not too merry–this is Sondheim, and the standards the show eventually birthed, including “Not a Day Goes By,” are slotted in amidst a funk of dashed hopes and unrealized ambitions. Based on a Kaufman and Hart play (this production pulled from other versions of the book, by Company scribe George Furth), the show begins in 1980, with self-satisfied movie producer and composer Frank (Ben Steinfeld), drunken critic Mary (Jessie Austrian), and others in their professional and personal circle revealed in all their self-satisfied shallowness. The show then goes back in time, ending in 1957, with the same characters (including lyricist Charley, played by Manu Narayan) enjoying the first flickers of hard-won success in the arts and toasting relationships that we know will corrode over the decades. Sondheim’s rueful “Old Friends” is an elegy to what’s been lost. (Backstage the generations have passed the baton: the show’s new orchestrations and arrangements, for an eight-member ensemble, are by Alexander Gemignani, the son of the show’s original musical director, Paul.) 

Under Noah Brody’s direction the show moves quickly–just not fast enough to disguise the thinness of the characterizations, which are at the mercy of the reverse chronology. (Beyond the song “Old Friends” we never get a sense why they were old friends, or lovers; all that registers are the disappointments.) That Fiasco’s players are more aspirational than satisfying as actors and singers magnifies the flaws of this well-meant staging. Sondheim loves puzzles; maybe he’s always intended Merrily We Roll Along to be a musical one, incapable of ever truly being solved. 

Courtesy of Classic Stage Company Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock is another one for my growing Glad I Saw That file. It is not, however, an argument for future revisits. Tim Robbins’ film Cradle Will Rock (1999) celebrated the 1937 debut of the show, which was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman under the auspices of the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project…and shut down by the Works Progress Administration on the eve of its Broadway bow, allegedly due to concern over its radical content. (The show would go on, with the two forming the legendary Mercury Theatre, and would yield the first cast recording in the bargain.)

Its tumultuous history has tended to obscure this “play in music,” an attack on capitalism run amuck, which is infrequently revived. You can see it in other shows: the more user-friendly Hadestown mixes mythology with politics, and Urinetown borrows its satirical elements for outright farce. But the semi-operatic, largely sung-through piece is something of a slog for much of the way, and casting performers in multiple roles doesn’t help. (It really doesn’t help that the characters represent talking points more than actual people.) Subtlety isn’t its strong suit: Foreman (Tony Yazbeck) arrives in Steeltown USA to unionize the workers against Mr. Mister (David Garrison), who from scene to scene uses his “liberty commitee” to devour all of the town’s enterprises, and principles, with handfuls of cash thrown about. Everyone, from the newspaper to the ministry, is on the take; can Foreman and his few allies, including the hooker Moll (Lara Pulver), save Steeltown’s soul?

In its final, more “musical theater” third, this staging begins to take hold, and I was moved by its close. The posturing, however, is hard to shake off, and for too long fine actors like Yazbeck, Pulver, and Rema Webb (who gets the most galvanizing number, an ode to the callously misused called “Joe Worker”) are locked into two dimensions. True to its origins John Doyle, the master minimalist behind revivals of Sweeney Todd and Carmen Jones, has given the show a threadbare, acoustic rendering, too much so: the actors are in rags and a piano works overtime, grinding out rather than accompanying the songs. Stuck in the muck and too rarely aspiring to beauty, this production of The Cradle Will Rock is so pinched even AOC might object.