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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
at Laura Pels Theatre

UNRAVELING IN REVERSE
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Ph: Joan Marcus

What does fate hold for a trio of aspiring young artist friends in New York City circa 1955? Or to flip the question, how did a triumvirate of quarrelsome, angry sellouts and cranks get to the point in 1980 where they loathe each other – and themselves? Time will tell – or rather, tell will time (as Yoda might put it). That’s the premise of Stephen Sondheim’s showbiz-pas-gone-wrong musical, which moves backward in time to trace the motives and mishaps that destroy three promising artists and the bonds of love they think will never die.
 
Against the backdrop of Derek McLane’s evocative set of costume racks and stored props reaching the rafters (along with an “Applause” sign that flashes when needed), we meet our three protagonists at a party for a 1980 movie release: Frank (Ben Steinfeld), this movie’s mogul, a former musician who’s guiltily trying to keep his wife away from his girlfriend; Mary (Jessie Austrian), a blowsy, bitter, bestselling writer; and Charley (Manu Narayan), a Pulitzer Prize winner and erstwhile lyricist who feels betrayed by Frank’s giving up music for moviemaking and hasn’t spoken to him for years. The meetup is a disaster. Even Frank’s phony friends realize that the flick was a dud, Charley blows up at Frank, and Mary throws a drunken scene. From there, the action unfolds backwards, rewinding through the trio’s trials and triumphs over the previous 25 years as they navigate through their personal and professional lives, never doubting that they will always be friends.
 
Of course, we know better from the get-go, but witnessing the differences that will destroy them – unrequited love, greed, self-doubt – as they shrink from friendship-strangling vines to tiny seeds is meant to be a revelation. And if the somewhat predictable trajectories of young talent selling out, burning out and petering out is less than surprising, it can nonetheless be riveting to watch all that flamboyant failure revert to youthful promise.
 
Directed by Noah Brody, Fiasco Theater’s version of the Sondheim musical slims it down to one act, six actors and eight musicians, and that reducing may well have been overly reductive. The streamlining does add energy in places – as the characters manically sing backwards to signal us during the first time regression, in some of the musical numbers, and in the sense that we are rushing back through time rather than strolling. But the characters in this production frequently feel a little flat. Austrian, in particular, is given little to work with, as Mary’s decades-long passion for Frank has no real payoff and her descent into midlife malaise seems even less motivated than the men’s. And as for them, the painstaking revelations of their various romances feel like red herrings as they take centerstage but only rarely shed light on the relationship among the three friends.
 
What remains striking about this vexed work, though, and ultimately more compelling than the idea that any mysteries will be revealed to us by returning to the source of this friendship and these careers, is the palpable sense of relief we feel moving from experience back to innocence. As Austrian divests herself of her frowsy fat clothes to become a slim young magazine writer, it’s not the retroactive makeover that’s so appealing or even simple nostalgia. It’s the desire to go back to the crossroads and take the right turn. And despite the bittersweet foreordained failure that we know will happen from the beginning of this show, the energy and excitement of those early moments are inevitably delightful – even when it’s already clear where they will lead.

 


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