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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Broadhurst Theatre


  Ph: Matthew Murphy

Few rites of mortification and abnegation can compare with the soul-napalming, suicide-instigating devastation that is the peculiarly American institution of the family holiday newsletter. Perhaps you were on the receiving end of the Gerard Family Newsletter. With all due respect to my late father, I can only tell you that your embarrassment is but a vague shadow compared with the scalpeled bloodletting still felt by my brothers and me at the memory of them. Those rosy paeans to familial bliss, intellectual accomplishment and financial success spread like a woolly cloud over our nuclear family more accurately rendered as locked and loaded for a fission trip.
While I doubt that Diablo Cody ever received the Gerard Family Newsletter, I suspect the mention of it might resonate with her. Jagged Little Pill, which marks this Oscar-winning screenwriter’s Broadway debut, has a brutal, biting script fashioned around Alanis Morrissette’s 1995 album of the same name, a blast of pain and rage against the patriarchy that struck a chord heard round the world. Cody starts the cannonball rolling with a cheery Christmas newsletter delivered by Mom, with the family gathered in front of the tree and framed by gold foil and glittery ornaments, a vision of oh, la.
I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Jagged Little Pill opens with an earsplitting blast that is the common signifier of the rock musical, as a chorus screams a verse from the title track that, if you can make out the words, intimates that “deliverance, a way to calm the angry voice” is the promise proffered by that JLP.
It’s brief, and then we get to the story at hand. Stories, in fact, for Cody’s first act of defiance is to resist the typical musical theater recipe of plot, comic subplot as a variant on the same theme, challenge and resolution, by offering some half-dozen major characters, each clamoring for our undivided attention.
We begin, though, with the Healy family. Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley) taps out the newsletter on her laptop, referencing the family jaunt to Europe and husband Steve’s recent elevation to partner after seven years at the firm. (“As for the kids and me, we’re enjoying his bonus,” she types. “LOL! Is that refreshingly self-aware or obnoxious?”) In her not so subtle asides (“Delete!”) we learn that Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is a workaholic and Internet porn addict; “artistic” daughter Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) is politically woke and dabbling in lesbianism with her serious girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten), who isn’t in on the dabbling part; and straight-arrow son Nick (Derek Klena) has just been accepted at Harvard – if he can just make it through the celebratory night that is about to get underway.
We also learn that although she boasts of the healing powers of acupuncture, Pilates, hot massage and blueberries, Mary Jane is addicted to opioids after a minor traffic accident. She has exhausted all the town’s legitimate sources (various doctors are onto her, as is the pharmacy) and has turned to dealers exchanging their goods in darkened alleys. Husband and wife haven’t had sex in a year. “I can’t feel anything!” Mary Jane exclaims, while the chorus snarls, “I see right through you,” from the album. And we’re just getting started.
Songs from Jagged Little Pill, augmented by others from Morrisette’s back catalogue and two new ones written for the show, are folded into the story. The numbers themselves, spiky with adolescent angst and a more pronounced sense of outrage over how the female of the species is abused regardless of age, have lost none of their power. (I say this as someone who must have been AWOL when the album was released, but who found the songs as pungent and on target as if they’d been written today.)
That doesn’t save JLP from a bit of Mamma Mia-itis, which is what happens when a story is meant to frame a song list (there’s also additional music by Morrisette and Glen Ballard), but the songs don’t always quite fit, requiring a slather of narrative mortar.
JLP takes a sharp turn into the present when Nick fails to intervene while his friend Andrew (Logan Hart) rapes Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) when she blacks out at the party. Will he risk his unblemished name, not to mention his ticket to Cambridge, by speaking out in Bella’s defense? And will Frankie, a black adoptee struggling to find her own identity while baked into this loaf of New England white bread, find peace with the sweet but callow Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano)?
It’s testament to the show’s stubborn refusal to favor one of these story lines over any other that the second-act, rafter-blasting show-stopper “You Oughta Know” is delivered by Jo, under any other circumstance a secondary character. A heartbreaker about being thrown over for another, the song's placement isn’t exactly earned. But the audience cared not at all, giving Patten a noisy, well-deserved ovation. This young actor is primus inter pares in a superb cast that’s been fine-tuned into a seamless ensemble by Diane Paulus. And lest there be any let-up in the anxiety level, the hyper-stylized dance breaks staged by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui threaten to burst out of the framework provided by Riccardo Hernandez’s atypically depressing, spartan sets.
There are echoes here of Dear Evan Hansen and Spring Awakening, but Paulus has been building a formidable body of work concerned with women intent on taking matters into their own hands (I’d include here Gloria: A Life, Waitress, In the Body of the World  and The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess). Attention, as another woman asserted, must be paid.
Jagged Little Pill is something like a country road after an ice storm: A hundred downed electrical wires furiously spark, sizzle and smoke in an unsettling display you can’t look away from but don’t dare approach too closely for fear of injury. The fireworks are there, to be sure. But they’re not dreamily harmonizing in the sky, pretty as a picture. They warn: Keep your distance. And so I never completed the journey into its soul. It was another family’s newsletter.


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