Exit Lines: The Bitch of Living

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

Spring Awakening and Old Times are revived on Broadway.

exit-lines-logo“So soon?” I thought, when I read that Spring Awakening was returning to Broadway. Then again the Tony-winning musical has never really left me: its cast album, a Grammy winner, is my go-to theatre listening, with tunes like “The Bitch of Living,” “Mama Who Bore Me,” “The Guilty Ones,” and, of course, the irresistible “Totally Fucked” personal standards. (The last one runs through my head at least once a day, usually when I’m running late and I’ve just missed a subway.) The production, too, has stuck with me, not least for its cast of shooting stars–Jonathan Groff (Looking), Lea Michele (Glee), and Tony winner John Gallagher, Jr. (The Newsroom) played the leads, suffering the torments of adolescence in an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 19th century play, then bursting into Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s exuberant  21st century songs.

Terrific. But the show, which opened in 2006, only closed six years ago, a blip in revival time. That’s not unheard of–The Color Purple, which closed in early 2008 after a run that began in late 2005, is also coming back this season. That, however, promises to be a more familiar reworking, stripping away the cumbersome production of the original to concentrate on the songs, the book, and the performances. What we have here, however, is an unconventional revival of a convention-breaking show, one whose success helped pave the way for the likes of The Book of Mormon, American Idiot, and Hamilton.

This Spring Awakening hails from LA’s Deaf West Theatre, which previously brought an acclaimed production of Big River east. The show is performed in American Sign Language,  which is seamlessly, and beautifully, melded with Spencer Liff’s choreography, and occasionally, unobtrusively augmented by projections illustrating the characters’ thoughts, typically on a school blackboard. Some of the actors are doubled: the singing voice of Moritz, who is piercingly well played by Daniel N. Durant, is supplied by Alex Boniello, who discreetly shadows Durant on stage. The sadly suppressed Wendla is portrayed, with aching vulnerability, by Sandra Mae Frank, and sung by Katie Boeck. The Oscar-winning star of Children of a Lesser God (1986), Marlee Matlin, and Camryn Manheim play the adult women in the storyline, trying to keep their misunderstood “wayward” children and pupils in line; Patrick Page, who possesses one of the great Broadway voices, plays various repressive authority figures; and Krysta Rodriguez (First Date) offers a plaintive “The Dark I Know Well” as Ilse. Unifying the worlds of the show with great charisma is ASL-fluent Austin P. McKenzie, as the headstrong, yet sensitive, protagonist, Melchior.

With miscommunication its theme, Spring Awakening was a natural for this treatment. A director’s note contributed by Michael Arden, who keeps all elements perfectly in check, reveals an extra dimension to the piece, which feels richer, darker, and more “Germanic” this time, and loses the onstage in-the-round component of its predecessor in favor of a deeper, more recessed setting. Not long before Wedekind wrote his incendiary play, an international resolution was passed banning sign language in US and European schools, a short-sighted and harmful development that brings an extra edge to the musical. The use of a chilling silence in this Spring Awakening is its most shattering touch, and I left the Brooks Atkinson extraordinarily moved. I look forward to the show’s next Broadway revival–its Deaf West Theatre revival, which enriches the entire experience.

EL 1Revivals of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and, now, Old Times, “disrupt” the Harold Pinter experience. Don’t like his pauses and silences? Gone. Would you prefer that the actors just race through the damn thing, shaving about ten minutes off Old Times, which typically runs 75 minutes? You got it. You’re out of the American Airlines Theatre by 9:05. Hope you got your money’s worth.

But this a mood piece, not 4-Minute Dating. That time is essential, to sink in and absorb the piece–its depth, its humor, its darkness, its cadence. The essential rhythm is shattered if the actors are roller-skating through it. The loss is that three expert performers (two of them, Clive Owen and Kelly Reilly, making their Broadway debuts) are marooned by the concept. Douglas Hodge, a Tony-winning actor (for La Cage Aux Folles; he’s the investigator trailing Josh Hartnett on Penny Dreadful) is an old hand at Pinter in London, and he should have trusted the text.

Owen and Reilly play Deeley and Kate, a married couple who fall into discussing Anna (Eve Best), who is due for a visit. Deeley knows little about Anna–and knows even less when she arrives, as innuendo-filled stories, as hazy as the cigarette smoke that hangs in the air, are shared. Threat and malice seep in. Christine Jones’ “celestial void” set gives a hint as to what might be going on–too much of one, really, but it was likely unavoidable, given the huge, runway-size stage, which is problematic for intimate shows like Old Times. That, coupled with dialogue that practically overlaps, forces, rather than teases, an interpretation. (Not helping much either is Thom Yorke’s tormenting score, which drove fellow audience members into the lobby as it played before the curtain rose.)

A shame–properly pitched, in a much smaller space, the show might have worked. (Best, familiar from Nurse Jackie, co-starred in a riveting production of Pinter’s The Homecoming a few seasons back.) The overcaffeinated “improvements” merely slow Old Times to a crawl, making it lumpy and indecipherable, rather than enigmatic. It’s iPinter.