If the unexamined life is not worth living, the overly examined life may nonetheless be worth watching. This musical retelling of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice – via Scott Elliott’s direction, Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book and a swirling, trance-y score by Duncan Sheik delivered by an onstage band – looks at the lives of two couples as they search for personal fulfilment in swinging 1969. Like the film it follows, it’s a gentle comedy of its earnest characters’ attempted, but not very insightful, introspection. But if they don’t learn much about themselves, the hope seems to be that in the end the audience will learn at least a little something about itself.
Based on the 51-year-old movie of the same name by Paul Mazursky, the New Group’s revival/reconstruction of the comedy of 30-something FOMO in the age of free love spins the original into a moody, evocative study of middle-class, middle-aged, largely inchoate longing. As the show opens, documentary filmmaker Bob (Joel Perez) and his wife Carol (Jennifer Damiano) are attending an encounter group led by an all-purpose character called the Band Leader, played with cool amusement by singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. He’s there mostly on business, as he insists, but the couple is soon sucked into the apparently unlimited vastness of their own interiority during a 24-hour session (select audience members are coaxed onstage to participate, too, but don’t worry, it’s not in real time). It’s heady stuff for the not-as-hip-as-they-wanna-be duo, and once they return to their real lives, they’re eager to explain their newfound enlightenment to their closest friends, Ted (Michael Zegen, aka Joel “Mr.” Maisel) and his wife Alice (Ana Noguera). At once more square and more cynical, Ted and Alice are slowly drawn in as first Bob, then Carol, tests the boundaries of their marriage (with the help of the opaquely adaptable Vega).
Despite the period costumes (short shifts, go-go boots, open-collar shifts and tight pants, designed by Jeff Mahshie) and the characters’ occasional fetishistic token (love beads) or self-conscious phrasing (“my old lady”), the feel is less 60s than late 80s new ageish. To be fair, that atmospheric vagueness seems not like an error but a purposeful aesthetic decision, leaving the characters at once adrift and yet universal. As they stray – apparently more from an urge to see how it makes them and their partners feel than from any very strong sense of desire – and then drift back to their spouses, they feel far from unique. In fact, that everyman quality is both an integral part of this production and its sense of fuzzy fellowship and also a flaw, in that they don’t feel like individuals living in a very specific cultural and historical moment.
Ironically, Perez and Damiano have it harder with their central couple of personalityless protagonists. Their sidekicks do get to have a little fun, even though it’s largely with stereotypes. Zegen gets some guilt and conflict to play with as Ted talks through his conflicted guilt and Noguera’s jealous exasperation, while comic, at least feels human. Meanwhile, Vega, in all her guises, seems to have seen it all before. Whether therapist or lover, she’s beyond surprise at the quartet’s antics.
Though it’s weirdly ungrounded, the show’s pleasantly so, and eminently watchable. The problem is that it leaves the audience with feelings similar to what the characters themselves are experiencing – a sense that this is all very nice, but shouldn’t we see if we can do something better? The ultimate effect is that we learn less about the foursome on the stage and perhaps more about the FOMO that motivates them. But what we learn about that is primarily emotional – the aimless feelings that something better might be on the road not taken, the desire to have it all without considering too closely the consequences. As we watch these couples navigate their meandering paths, there’s an emotional as well as aesthetic satisfaction to seeing it through, but it’s not exactly intellectually stimulating, and in losing the particularity of 1969, we also lose the sense of why that’s the moment when couples like these have the luxury as well as the longing to act out their fleeting desires.