Here’s to Them. Who’s Like Them? **** Few.
Here’s a thing about the so-called classics: We may have all sorts of feelings, valid ones, about how often they come back around, what was wrong with them in the first place, what’s wrong with them now, and what may or may not be worthier of a current airing; but the fact that they come back around forces us to pause and do that most imperative and unsettling of things — reconsider. To look at something again really means looking at ourselves again: approaching the same mirror ready to see a different reflection, perhaps even ready to admit that we no longer agree with our past selves. In the Russian director Anatoly Efros’s rehearsal diaries, he returns to Three Sisters several times over the course of many years. One later entry begins, “Perhaps the beginning of Three Sisters should not be exactly as I thought before.” Another, still later: “Obviously, our production of Three Sisters was not clear enough.” The old plays that keep coming back make us confront the possibility — frightening, vital — of change. Four years ago, in a different world, I reviewed a production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, and in large part I blamed the book (by Furth, based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart) for the show’s limited effectiveness. I was hardly the first: When Merrily premiered in 1981, my colleague Frank Rich, then writing for the New York Times, famously called it “a shambles,” holding Furth’s book responsible for its “major dramatic failure,” “anticlimactic plot exposition,” and “unearned nastiness.” A rewrite came along later, and the show has been back through New York a few times, but never at Broadway scale. Now a starry new version of this hot-take-magnet of a musical rolls along, and I find myself facing the mirror, reconsidering. Perhaps Merrily is not exactly as I thought before. The hype around Maria Friedman’s production (which ran at NYTW last December and began its life ten years ago at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in what was, remarkably, her directorial debut) has involved a lot of excited language about solving or saving the play. I don’t know about that — the chatter feels a bit flat and final to me — but I do know this: Friedman and her ensemble render the show exquisite. The nastiness Rich spoke of is nowhere to be found. The cynicism and jadedness that have tended to hang in a sour cloud around the backwards-told story of the gradual selling out of three big-dreaming artistic friends — they’ve mellowed into honest heartache. Something has shifted, a key has subtly but significantly changed, and the show’s bitterness has been lovingly infused with sweet. Friedman understands something crucial about Merrily, one of those elusive things that seems so simple when we actually, at last, see it happen: We need to love the three aspiring hearts who begin the play middle-age — suffering, compromised, hating each other — and end it as 20-year-old music-makers and dreamers of dreams. I mean, really love them — enough that, as we watch their story reassemble itself, like a rewound film of a shattered vase, our hearts can’t help cracking, in an inverse relationship to the thing we’re seeing be repaired, the thing we know, in real time, is still broken. Love them enough that our knowing — the structural inevitability of the play — is neither a flaw nor, in fact, the point. And we need to see that they really love each other. Furth’s book — with its quippishness and its lack of deep character background — can’t be solely depended on for this, nor, even, can Sondheim’s inimitable lyrics and often ravishing music. You need actors, and not just anyone. Enter, as a gloriously playful and supportive trio, Lindsay Mendez, Jonathan Groff, and Daniel Radcliffe. This crack team’s commitment to each other, and to getting at the story’s innards, starts immediately — that is, immediately after the show’s fantastic overture and its eerily bright-eyed title number. (The wonderful band, conducted by Joel Fram, plays with precision and gusto from the second story of Soutra Gilmour’s slick and evocative David Hockney–esque set.) It’s 1976, and we’re at a swanky party in Bel Air. Franklin Shepard (Groff) has just produced a hit film. Everyone who’s anyone is at his L.A. mansion, toasting to the future. “He has taste, he has talent / Is he the best?” sings the simpering ensemble. “Plus a fine head for business / The man is blessed.” Merrily takes a risk by introducing its protagonists at their most unlikeable point. Frank, we learn, is a brilliant composer who has largely put his art aside to make money producing popular schlock. (The movie, apparently, is terrible.) He’s also cheating on his actress wife, Gussie Carnegie (Krystal Joy Brown), with the younger actress (Talia Simone Robinson) who’s starring in his new film. (A similar affair with Gussie, years earlier, destroyed his marriage to his first wife, Beth, played by a bright, sympathetic Katie Rose Clarke.) Meanwhile, his “deepest, closest, best friend in all the world” — his words — the theater critic Mary Flynn (Mendez), is sitting in a corner drinking herself into a dull, contemptuous fury, getting ready to poop the party in spectacular fashion. Frank and Mary’s former kindred spirit, the Pulitzer-winning playwright Charley Kringas (Radcliffe), is absent; at this point, his name is anathema. It’s possible for Frank to swing and schmooze his way through this scene as the worst version of himself: “Who says, ‘Lonely at the top’? / I say, ‘Let it never stop!’” he sings to his crowd of sycophants. But Groff is an actor who’s able to communicate hurt and humanity even through a carapace of ego and moral deficiency. (In this way he reminds me of Matthew Macfadyen: Who among us has any business feeling empathy for Tom Wambsgans? And yet …) All through Merrily’s opening scene, Groff’s eyes are dead hollows — deep, dark wells with reservoirs of tears way down at the bottom, threatening to make their way up. He smiles, he sings, his body propels itself around the room, and he’s not there. His Frank is the worst version of himself, but he knows it, and he’s terribly alone and afraid. Watching Groff — who, as the show moves forward and backward, becomes visibly younger: driven, yes, but also sweet and earnest, almost puppyish — I thought of Chekhov’s successful, unprincipled writer Trigorin, who tells his lover: “I haven’t got any willpower. I never have had … Go on, take me, take me away with you. But please, don’t ever let me out of your sight.” Groff makes clear that Frank’s is a tragedy of weakness, not simply of greed. Which is why poor Mary, who loves him and has tried to serve as his backbone, has been dragged down, too. Mendez is marvelous as Mary, the show’s toughest role and a part that can be all angles and jabs — a mess of sloshed vodka and bitter zingers à la Elaine Stritch. But Mendez isn’t hardened or ironic: She’s still, after all these years and despite all her sharps, faithful, open, and vulnerable. “I tell everything, then go home and suffer,” she says to the boys in the play’s last scene — the long-ago, youthful meeting of the characters, up on a roof in their pajamas, trying to get a glimpse of Sputnik. Mendez takes young Mary at her word, beginning the play with that core truth still true. She keeps the character’s heart exposed, and though it takes beating after beating, it never closes up. Her rendition of the beautiful “Like It Was” is simple and wrenching. She sits with her shoulders a little hunched, looking suddenly childlike, and her clear, flexible voice pours out imploringly but without shaking. “You and me,” she sings to Charley, “we were nicer then.” And Charley! As the twitching, high-integrity, high-anxiety writer, Radcliffe is a complete delight. Next to Groff’s Frank, who’s tall, square-shouldered, and — at least outwardly — self-possessed, Radcliffe is a vibrating sprite, the kind of person whose big brain you can practically see smoking as it spins. Not long after the show begins, Charley has to launch into one of its fastest, most relentless songs — certainly its most enraged. “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” is a public breakdown set to music, a frantic, brutally funny screed in which Charley excoriates his estranged best friend and collaborator on live TV. It’s an acrobatic number, and Radcliffe full-on sticks the landing. In the applause that follows (and indeed, throughout the show), there’s something very special radiating from him, even through all Charley’s angst: It’s the undiluted, joyful rush of performing onstage. The enlivening pulse created by Radcliffe, Mendez, and Groff gains strength and drive through the production’s rock-solid ensemble. Gilmour (also the costume designer) dresses them in softly period, unified swaths of color as the play moves back in time — blues, then beiges, then, in the lavish, La Dolce Vita–ish early ‘60s, in hard black and white. There’s something smart happening here: Groff, as Frank, wears varyingly sophisticated versions of the same white shirt and black trousers throughout the show, but at the top of Act Two, as Gussie (not yet his wife) seductively introduces him to “The Blob” — a pulsating swarm of influentials, “the ones who know everyone that everyone knows” — Frank’s clothes match the company’s for the first time. He is, whether consciously or not, getting sucked into something. No — it already has him. Some shows can withstand miscasting — turns out, Merrily can’t. (It’s often said that the casting of very young actors was a large part of the original production’s failure.) Even the big producer, Joe Josephson, who can come off as a Hollywood hack with dollar signs for pupils, is brought a sense of hangdog appeal by Reg Rogers. You get the feeling that Josephson is affable at heart, tired in soul, and that even he might have had ideals once. Friedman’s great insight — perhaps owing to her own long career onstage — is to have sought out actors she, and we, can entirely trust, and to trust them. (It sounds simple. It’s not.) She locates the play’s potential to be caring rather than callous not on the page but in the specific human beings who are here, doing this thing, right now. A central trio as sensitive and superb as this one doesn’t just make Merrily more moving; it makes it much more fun. It even adds a faint glimmer of something resembling hope. If Frank can reconsider, then he may yet change. Or he may not. But either way, an actor must show us, as Groff does, a true encounter with the mirror. With their irresistible energy and chemistry, Mendez, Groff, and Radcliffe lift Merrily up, yet keep it grounded with real, apparent affection and emotional heft. They are the ones reviving the play, by revealing and jump-starting its heart. Merrily We Roll Along is at the Hudson Theatre.
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