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The Last Midnight: Sondheim and Ives’s ‘Here We Are’

Unlike an Orwell or an Odets, the cheekily (and correctly) self-described “icon of the American musical theater” Stephen Sondheim is not ordinarily associated with overt political righteousness. Yet what Orwell called “a sense of injustice” is right there flowing through his work — sometimes as a quiet underground stream, sometimes as a heaving, filthy flood. “What does a man do, when at last he realizes his suffering is caused not by the cruelty of fate, but by the injustice of his fellow human beings?” asks the anarchist Emma Goldman in Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins. Or take the direful lesson delivered just minutes into Sweeney Todd:

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit And the vermin of the world inhabit it And its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit… At the top of the hole sit a privileged few Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo Turning beauty to filth and greed — I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru…

So although it’s not a surprise, it’s still an invigorating relief that Sondheim’s final offering to the world, the long-time-coming new musical Here We Are, is a fittingly complex and thorny one. The same seething consciousness of caste and cruelty that ripples through Sweeney forms the backbone of Here We Are, a show equally preoccupied with trendy restaurants and one with, if anything, even more of an impulse to eat the rich. There’s no blurring of the composer-lyricist’s inimitable, agile and angular forms, no blunting of his wit, no comfort in nostalgia. The play has sharp, savage urges, springing from its sense of injustice. When it wobbles, and it does so increasingly as it goes along, it’s not because it began without a clear proposition: It’s because the logical conclusion of its premise is in fact so dark, so extreme, that you can feel the opposing, more compassionate (or at least more ambivalent) instincts of the show’s creators kicking back at it — stalling, equivocating, looking for alternative exits. Which—isn’t it ironic?—is exactly what Here We Are’s trapped characters are doing for the increasingly macabre latter half of the play. With a jaunty-sinister book by the playwright David Ives, Here We Are is based on two films by the Spanish surrealist director Luis Buñuel: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. (Director Joe Mantello has been on board helping to develop the show since 2016.) Both Buñuel films are satires of the aristocracy—Discreet Charm eerily light and dreamlike, Angel much more brutal—and Here We Are smashes them together. In the first act, we meet a gaggle of effervescent, absurdly wealthy friends (“at the top of the hole…”) who embark on a simple quest for brunch and, with mounting bizarreness, keep failing to get it — this, give or take, is the plot of Discreet Charm. In Act Two, they’ve finally found a place to dine—the palatial embassy of the made-up mini-country Moranda; one of them is the ambassador—but now, due to some menacing and inexplicable force, they find themselves unable to leave. Their only goal has been to eat; now they’re left with nothing to consume but themselves. “What does a man do, when he sees those dear to him starving, when he himself is starved? What does he do?” That’s Assassins’ Emma Goldman again — and though she’s advocating for righteous rebellion, her words describe the predicament of Here We Are’s friends disturbingly well. There’s another answer Emma wouldn’t want to hear, and that is that, when they are starving, some men turn on each other. These days, we’re familiar with this classic horror-movie arc—thanks in part to Buñuel, whose Angel is often cited as a significant precursor to the genre, or even as an early example of it—and so we ready ourselves for Here We Are to plummet towards darkness, and to get grisly on the way. The fact that it never really does is intriguing, and yet also often gives one the stutter-starting sensation of hesitancy, a kind of vacillation in the face of the abyss. It feels as if Sondheim, Ives, and Mantello were attempting to navigate between genre clichés — on the one side, the gruesome: eating innocent animals, eating each other, suicides, madness, etc.; and on the other side, the sentimental: “Well, at least we all learned something about ourselves.” Within this narrow, tricky gap, they’ve had trouble finding a solid something else. The line between intentional, powerful ambivalence and couldn’t-quite-be-helped ambiguity is sometimes incredibly thin, and Here We Are weaves back and forth across it. But what an astounding set of performances! What a striking, protean mise-en-scène! What a thrill to hear the unmistakable syncopations, the spikes and leaps and the intermittent yearning silkiness of this music, one last first time. When billionaire’s wife, Marianne Brink (a sublime Rachel Bay Jones), sings a soaring ode to the joys of superficiality, Sondheim breezes into the room at full force. “What’s wrong with superficial?” sings Marianne:

I want things to shine — Is that so bizarre? I want things to gleam, To be what they seem, And not what they are… 

We may be inclined to sit in judgment on Marianne and her Jersey Boy oligarch of a husband, Leo (Bobby Cannavale, gravel-voiced, insouciant, and excellent in his velour sweatsuit), and on her whole crowd, for that matter — on the Zimmers, snobbish plastic surgeon Paul (Jeremy Shamos) and sharky talent agent Claudia (Amber Gray); on the corrupt Casanova, Raffi, the Morandan ambassador (Steven Pasquale); on Fritz, Marianne’s dour, socialist-with-a-trust-fund kid sister (Micaela Diamond)… And perhaps that judgment is justified. After all, don’t they live in—didn’t they build and don’t they own—a whole world, as Fritz describes it, of “bought-and-sold elections / and infinity pools / and Damien Hirsts”? The exterminating angel hovers over these people, and yet Marianne’s paean to surfaces is also—cleverly, self-seeingly—an artist’s confession, a song about theater. “I want things to gleam, / To be what they seem, / And not what they are.” There is, as there so often is in Sondheim, melancholy in the sparkle and vice versa — an undaunted desire to render an ugly world beautiful by making beautiful things. For all her swishing about in an expensive negligee, literally smelling the roses and entreating Leo to “Buy this day for me, darling / Buy this perfect day / Put it on display,” Marianne is the heart of Here We Are — the closest thing it has to a conscience. Unlike everyone else in her cohort, including her revolution-heralding sister, she is empty of cynicism. Jones turns her into a kind of holy fool, the only one asking real questions, the only one with an unfeigned sense of curiosity and beauty. In the middle of the friends’ first night of entrapment in “the room” at the embassy, before they know the full extent of their plight, Marianne dances with a bear who emerges—massive, hilarious, breathtaking—from behind the grand piano. Is it a dream, or is it some strange, tilted reality? Whatever it is, it’s clear that only Marianne has the ability to see it, and to meet it with tenderness and fascination, rather than fear. After Marianne’s song, which comes just before the characters discover that they’re stuck, melody quickly drains out of the show. For much of the second act, as desperation and panic and sickness and scapegoating set in, there is no music whatsoever — Here We Are becomes a straight (well, a twisted) play. According to the creators, this shift—and it’s a dramatic one—is intentional. Ives has described Sondheim fretting when it came to the music for Act Two: “Why are these people singing when they’re in this room?” Mantello eventually argued to Sondheim that, just as Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel has no score, the story they were telling should become one “about the absence of music.” Once they’re stuck in “the room,” Mantello said, “these characters expressing themselves in a conventional musical-theater way would be deeply unsatisfying and detract from the story.” The intellectual justification for bleeding the music from the play as it progresses holds up. But then, one can learn to intellectually justify pretty much anything; that’s what grad school is for. As the play’s ensemble, all exceptional actors, threw themselves into spoken drama-and-trauma, I remained a bit distanced. Again, we know this arc, and there’s still convention to it, even if it isn’t musical — shouting, crying, basically realistically expressed recrimination and breakdown. What would have been the un-conventional musical-theater way forward for Here We Are? It’s not an answerable question, and that’s okay, but it’s still one that buzzes around one’s head throughout the show’s latter half, like a fly that’s difficult to bat away. The moments when it subsides most are the tender ones, particularly another midnight with Marianne, this one shared by a benign oddball of a bishop (a wonderful, wistful David Hyde Pierce). He has turned up unexpectedly, just before the existential lockdown — why? Because, as Pierce sing-splains in high understated-comic form, he’s looking for a new job. (Of course he is: This world is godless, faithless, spiritless, conscienceless. Who needs a little priest?) But now—days, weeks, who knows how long later—he and Marianne share a sweet, slightly dim, yet very poignant conversation about the nature of being, as they munch on pages of A Tale of Two Cities to stave off starvation. (“The classics,” remarks the bishop with mild appreciation, “Always nourishing — now literally so.”) “Yes. Being. Well,” he goes on, coughing a bit. “First of all — you might say — we’re here. Actually here! On earth. Most likely. Though perhaps not. As are other people, and also objects…. And that means something. That we’re here. We mean something, apparently. We are what you might call matter that matters. Or not. Depending on who you read.” Pierce’s touch is delicate, and Jones is radiant with glad attention. It’s the culmination of the playfulness of the show’s title: a banal little phrase that could signify a delighted arrival, or a hopeless assessment of the circumstances, or an articulation of astonishment at our very existence. The logical conclusion of its premise is so dark, so extreme, that you can feel the opposing, more compassionate (or at least more ambivalent) instincts of the show’s creators kicking back. Or, as Mantello has pointed out, “a waiter setting a plate down in front of someone.” Despite its flickers of softness and wonder, Here We Are is also—or at least has the bone structure of—a scathing class satire. Fritz’s insistence that “it’s the end of the world” and “the revolution is up and humming” isn’t empty talk: She’s secretly part of a radical cell that has doomsday plans in motion. In fact, the leader of that cell (Denis O’Hare) will end up trapped in the room along with his rich and formerly powerful quarry. Is the world ending outside while they all wait, sweat, and suffer, eating books and, sans toilet, relieving themselves in priceless Ming jars? Perhaps. The tough, droll O’Hare and the fantastic Tracie Bennett play a parade of servants throughout the show — in the first act, a series of waiters who are infinitely sorry (or not) to announce that their various restaurants are out of everything. “We do expect a little latte later, / But we haven’t got a lotta latte now,” sings a suicidally contrite O’Hare. (You can just imagine Sondheim giggling over his Blackwing.) Bennett, meanwhile, is marvelous as an operatically disaffected French waitress with an Edna Mode haircut and a look that suggests she’d be fine emceeing at the Kit Kat Klub. “What does anything matteur?” she groans. “It is what it is. / Things are what they are. / La vie est la vie.” She is the jaded yin to Marianne’s fantasy-craving yang, and that fabulous fit is courtesy of hair and makeup designers Robert Pickens and Katie Gell, along with David Zinn, who designed scenery and costumes. Zinn’s cavernous, gleaming white box of a set—which is being performatively cleaned by people in service uniforms before the play begins—will become a kind of hellmouth: opening up to belch forth Act Two’s enormous, gilded prison of a drawing room. (The leatherbound books, the colorful cast of affluent characters, the menace, the butler… Sometimes it’s like a surrealist Clue.) Bennett lends a scale and a physical grotesquerie to her roles that feels especially on point for the source material — but there’s not a single performer lagging behind in Here We Are. Gray, whose Claudia is nervy and explosive, is a perfect complement to Shamos’s seemingly unassuming, actually arrogant, reckless, cowardly, sensitive Paul. Pasquale plays his schmoozy, pan-European lothario to the hilt, and Diamond brings hunched, bug-eyed fanaticism and self-loathing (plus a killer voice) to the lost, striving Fritz. When the army shows up—represented by Francois Battiste’s straight-backed Colonel Martin—and Fritz finds herself swooning over a very pretty soldier (a strapping, golden-voiced Jin Ha) who has very freaky dreams, the confused crack in her character reveals itself. She’s an anarchist, but she falls for law and order. In The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel makes no bones about the fate of his cast of one-percenters, and it’s a gory one. Here We Are’s satirical revulsion at its own characters, and its decision about what to do with them, was always going to have more friction to it. First because, well, here we are at the $500 million Shed, surrounded by the $25 billion Hudson Yards. As Bennett’s waitress says, it is what it is. Still, it is, and for a moment in Act Two, as I watched the dozens of moving lights swiveling above and Zinn’s set magically transforming below, I wondered: What would Here We Are look like, and what would it mean, treated as if it were Mother Courage — staged on a dime in a warehouse somewhere, a treatise on wealth without wealth to back it, a people’s parody? But the play’s feeling of irresolution around its characters and their dark night of the soul isn’t just a matter of real estate. It’s also a formal issue: Theater humanizes. It’s not just hard to damn an entire dramatis personae to hell; it feels, in a room full of real bodies, where heartbeats and breath have synchronized, somehow wrong. And to make matters even more complex, isn’t allowing a character to sing in some sense endowing them with, or admitting that they always had, a soul? Sweeney Todd, a serial killer, displayed one; so did Booth and Oswald. Here We Are is torn between its reasonable desire to obliterate its characters and its aspiration, if not quite to save them, then to remain open-ended as to where they—and we—go from here. If it’s sometimes a muddled impulse, it’s also a humane one. Sondheim certainly didn’t go gentle into the apocalypse of late capitalism, but he didn’t go heartless either. He stayed complicated. He gave us more to see. Here We Are is at the Shed through January 21. Related

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