Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice based on the Columbia Pictures film written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, with music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green is a lightly satiric, musical comedy, with mellow, soulful music. The production, like its titular film counterpart, hearkens back to an easier time before AIDS, STDS, the debacle of the Viet Nam War and the cultural stresses afterward, when the country faced chaotic divisiveness that was not easily answered by later political administrations.
Directed by Scott Elliott, the production is a delight with adorable actors portraying the thirty-something married couples Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Bob (Joél Pérez), Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) who try to redefine themselves according to the hot pants, younger generational trends which tout the rejection of binding sexual mores and strictures.
This was the time of open marriages, when free love was being embraced as revelational. Various generations either looked askance in horror or savored the sex with hallucinogens and weed. So instead of rotting in aging and being left behind, Bob and Carol take a break from the kids, go to a New Age type resort, and embrace the “new” concepts of this inner freedom and tranquility.
Bob and Carol begin the arc of the story development and conflicts after they return from their growth experience at the retreat (like Esalen) led by the director (who is also the band leader) portrayed by Suzanne Vega. The experience “opens” them up to a new world of freedom using the techniques we have all come to know today (meditation, primal screams, intense feeling expressions, etc.).
They return home believing that the experience translates into their daily lives by allowing them to understand their values, their “ethos,” and their capacity to break away into new experiences. Of course one of the most important is extending the boundaries of their marriage and expanding themselves to include acceptance of their partner’s actions whatever they may be. Bob initiates this extension by having sex, in an unfaithful act, which surprisingly Carol accepts and answers with one of her own. Both affirm, “It was just sex, not love.”
For Ted and Alice who essentially watch and don’t indulge, their learning is vicarious, but they can’t move beyond the boundaries of their own morals and sensibility of love. They judgmentally remain within the strictures of their marriage vows and monogamy. The contrast between the two couples is telling: here are the liberals and the conservatives. But beneath each conservative heart is the quest to be liberal. And in this production, it is no less so.
As you watch the events unfold and empathize with the characters along their journeys of self-discovery, you can’t help but fall a bit in love with them. They are so cute in their questioning searches as they soldier on to their discoveries with quasi-comical seriousness. Watching liberal couple Bob and Carol explore the outer limits of love and marriage, extramarital affairs, infidelity, sexuality and enlightened contrast between love and sex, we are along for their ride because it is neither shocking nor lustful, nor pornographic. It just is.
Considering what has transpired between then (1969) and now, the perniciousness of sexual plagues and wildness of Studio 54 that gave rise to them, which followed the “free love” generation, by comparison, these couples are sweet neophytes. The production mirrors this laid-back pleasantness in mood and tone delivered by Sheik’s balancing music, sung with fluidity, smoothness and grace by Grammy winner Suzanne Vega, and with melodic lyricism by the ensemble.
The characters’ “new” sexual endeavors infuse the production with the mild raciness of the 1969 film. The original which spawned a later TV show was a comedy satire about the cultural mores transformation. A success at the box office, it did have Oscar-winning nominations for the actors who played Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).
Overall, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a retrospective and homage to the the culture and class who dipped in lightly with just their toes as they approached the swirling currents of social change. However, they never took the plunge into the deep end of promiscuity, three-ways, pornography, open marriage and divorce. They accomplished just enough to stimulate themselves, then slid back into their comfort zones measuring their lives with coffee spoons as they dabbled with introspection.
Sheik’s music and the ironic Suzanne Vega as band leader, “mistress of ceremonies” reintroduce for our time a derivation of pop’s easy listening. As the overarching guiding light of threaded musical commentary, Suzanne Vega’s lilting, sensuous voice showcases the four characters as she editorializes their journey beginning with Bob and Carol’s stay at the retreat and their “enlightened” return when they share their enlivening experiences with their conservative friends Ted and Alice.
But as the bonds between the couples loosen, the audience becomes intrigued. Ted and Alice warm up to their friends’ “exploits.” Bob and Carol appear sophisticated, cool and free in their “open” marriage. The men and women separately sing about and discuss their sexuality with their spouses. This leads each to consider their lives with their partners. The songs eventually reveal that each couple is inspired to reaffirm their love for each other.
But we know what’s coming: “monkey see, monkey do”! Humorously, the two couples push the envelope by spending a night together in the bedroom with interesting results. Ultimately, they discover the vitality of loving one individual with intimacy and true spiritual bonding. This can only happen when each member of the couple reveals that they are vulnerable and need help to receive the intimacy and beauty of love from their spouse.
The production is enjoyable and a throwback to a simpler time when all seemed right with loving just one individual in a satisfying marriage. In our tumultuous social and political fabric that is too frightening to contemplate and whose nightly news and snarky, edgy, social and cultural reports are the antithesis of entertainment, this the production is fun. Thus, the concept of “the open marriage” which Bob and Carol investigate with Ted and Alice with the quips and satiric jokes laced in and clever writing by Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book becomes a pleasant and satisfying relief.
There is no heavy lifting here, nothing more profound and mysterious than how and why we fall in love with each other which is a wonderful “thing” to contemplate. It is the wonder that engages us and immerses us in another time. And as we contemplate and review this historical retrospective of the social and cultural mores of the 1960s, we also enjoy the costumes and the California dreaming liquidity of the music so that we are able to ride on the waves of the production’s serenity.
The ensemble and director have established the right tenor for the comedic elements. And Sheik’s music is subtly, appropriately emotional as the characters search themselves and each other to understand the mysteries of love how and why they love.
Special kudos to Kelly Devine’s musical staging and to the following creatives: Derek McLane (scenic design) Jeff Mahshie (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Jessica Paz (sound design). Additional kudos to Duncan Sheik for the orchestrations, Jason Hart for music supervision, vocal arrangements and additional orchestrations and Antoine Silverman for music coordination.
The New Group’s presentation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice runs with no intermission until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
In Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg, adroitly directed by Scott Elliott, stealthy desperation that unravels into a high stakes gambit between employer Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) a Jewish community theater actress/housewife, and home health caretaker, Ljuba (Marin Ireland) climaxes by the end of the play. From the outset Eisenberg infers frenetic undercurrents in the dynamic between the two women. Lubja is the “happy,” compliant, illegal Serbian help and Lorraine negotiates the care of two individuals while she attempts a fantastic pretense that all is “well,” for the sake of the household. Both are fronting.
From their interactions at the top of the play, we divine a synergistic relationship between Ljuba and Lorraine. Ljuba is meticulous with Lorraine’s mom in her caretaking duties. Not in the country legally, Ljuba confides that she hopes to become a citizen via a green card marriage so that she might bring her daughter to the United States for a better life. Lorraine, whom we realize later in the play, is one step away from a nervous breakdown, has an upbeat attitude with Ljuba whom she treats as a friend. Importantly, she attempts to cheer up dour husband Bill, whose agonizing, degenerative MS is a depressive death sentence. Lorraine’s bedridden, incontinent mother is slowly dragging herself into the afterlife with Ljuba’s attentive care, feeding, changing and monitoring her. But in Lorraine’s daily existence, her mother is an afterthought, amidst her preparations for her role as “Bloody Mary” in the Jewish Community Center’s South Pacific.
Eisenberg’s arc of development between and among the characters is pegged to the gradual revelation of the deeper “ethos” of these two women and how they balance the precariousness of their daily emotional struggles to manage their inner tension and stress. They do this with “happy talk.” Though other songs from South Pacific are played with ironic intent during the dramatic interludes (“Bali H’ai,” “Twin Soliloquies,” Some Enchanted Evening,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) Eisenberg references the titular song sung by Bloody Mary. Initially, the analogy that Lorraine should be cast as Bloody Mary seems weird. But as the play unfolds, we understand the parallels of characterization flavored with trenchant sardonic humor. Both characters manifest underlying themes of manipulation, exploitation and desperation.
As the events unfold we realize that both Lorraine and Ljuba act to encourage themselves away from reality. One is easily recognizable because she wears “drama” on her sleeve and rambles on about the intentions and nuances of her role as Bloody Mary with her “co-star” Ronny (the fine Nico Santos). Ljuba is a joyful cipher who is unmasked by Jenny (Tedra Millan) Lorraine’s wrath-filled daughter whose condemnation of Lorraine is delivered in a rapid-fire series of punches. Jenny encourages Ljuba to be her real self, a painful prospect considering her circumstances.
The intrigue in this production is in its authenticity of Sarandon’s and Ireland’s, staged “happiness.” They mask their interactions with each other while they choke down their true feelings. Ljuba fears deportation. Lorraine fears losing everything to her husband’s sickness and death.
But as Eisenberg displays the characters in the first half, with the exception of taciturn Bill (the excellent Daniel Oreskes) there is no hint of debacle, desolation or tension. Lorraine and Ljuba are cheerful, “open,” convivial and warm and seem to genuinely care for each other. Lorraine’s “over-the-top” narcissism about her acting chops and Ljuba’s sweet generosity and friendliness incite humor. In their interplay Lorraine’s self-aggrandizement about acting appears shallow and we laugh at her presumptive “greatness.” Of course the irony that Susan Sarandon, who has a mile-long list of credits, praises her talent is rich. And Ireland playing hand maiden as an actress of lesser years and experience is equally ironic.
The plot thickens when Lorraine matches up Ljuba to Ronny as her green card husband and they create a backstory together complete with photographs, dates and events. There are twists and turns; the tension increases. We witness the severity of Bill’s illness and pain. Also, we note that Lorraine refuses to confront her mother’s illness and impending mortality. She avoids even looking in on her and only does so after daughter Jenny berates her about it.
Jenny’s sneaky arrival through the back garden sliding doors gyrates the play in another direction and twerks the cheerful atmosphere and humor. Tedra Millan drips bile as she notes the pretense between her mother and Ljuba. Her appalling relationship with Lorraine whom she hasn’t seen in six months becomes apparent, and we are swept into her authenticity, amazed at her reaction to Lorraine.
As Millan’s Jenny unloads a condemnatory rant in a fusillade of excoriations, with a self-justified tone of recrimination, she announces her permanent move to Costa Rica. Her brief visit to her grandmother and expression of love to Bill are almost ancillary. Her shooting target is Lorraine.
As divaish as Lorraine has been, Jenny assumes center stage; she a drama queen like her mother but with the intention to destroy. She shreds her mother until Lorraine has had enough and kicks her out, but not before Ljuba upbraids her. Nevertheless, Jenny has poisoned the well, and we look at the principals with a different perspective. Perhaps Jenny has clear-eyed vision in her suggestion that Ljuba is too compliant, too congenial in putting up with her mother. Perhaps Lorraine has another agenda in assisting Ljuba to obtain a green card marriage with Ronny.
In this highpoint of the play, the actors’ transformations are nuanced and real. Sarandon’s inner torment and guilt resonate with us and we shift toward her with empathy when she breaks down then recoups to carry on suppressing her pain so she will be able to go on. It’s an important moment during which Sarandon’s Lorraine becomes humanized.
Our estimation of Ljuba steps up when she defends Lorraine against what can only be a described as tragic hatred revealing traumatic hurt that Jenny has experienced growing up with Lorraine as her mother. Since we only hear Jenny’s side and see a humbled, guilty Lorraine who acts like a wounded animal, we cannot divine the truth. But we are on notice and watchful for additional signs of clarification.
Ireland and Sarandon play off each other like a chef and a sous chef that reverse the power dynamic now and again. The irony and sardonic humor laden with various tropes of middle class lifestyles gilding the darker aspects a “comfortable” life are jerked back at the end of the play. It is then we see the desperation and understand how economic hardship is the perennial wolf at the door. No amount of well meaning goodness can be sustained when the situation becomes a matter of life and death. Fear, panic and selfishness take over. And to survive, one must go along with what fate has dished up however terrible. When the masks are dropped, all becomes rotten and real and the “happy talk,” ends.
Happy Talk is a must see for the performances and the clever writing which changes on a dime to the unexpected and concludes with searing force into tragic collapse. The characterizations are grounded in the currency of the times and remind us that manipulations and secret agendas seek their own level of opportunity. The victims often have little recourse in the hands of unlikely predators whom one never sees coming.
Kudos to Derek McLane (Scenic Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Design) Leah J. Loukas (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).
Happy Talk presented by The New Group is at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) until 16 June. For tickets and times at their website CLICK HERE.
Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.
Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.
At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.
Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.
The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.
As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.
Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.
Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.
Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.
Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.
That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.
This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.
Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.
Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.
Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.