Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Off-Broadway Roundup: “Far from Heaven” and “The Explorers’ Club”

Far from Heaven
Book by Richard Greenberg; music by Scott Frankel; lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Greif
Performances through July 7, 2013
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

The Explorers Club
Written by Nell Benjamin; directed by Marc Bruni
Performances through July 21, 2013
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

O'Hara and Johnson in Far from Heaven (photo: Joan Marcus)
Todd Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven, a ham-fisted, obvious melodrama modeled after director Douglas Kirk, is set in 1957 and filled with visual and thematic allusions to Sirk’s ‘50s pictures. That Haynes deals with Serious Issues—homosexuality and interracial relationships were taboo then—only makes his movie more manipulative, not any more meaningful.

For their musical adaptation, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Richard Greenburg have retained some of the movie’s risibly lush atmosphere, but Heaven works slightly better onstage than onscreen because it tries to treat its protagonists on their own terms, not turning them into pawns that Haynes moved at will.

Far from Heaven, though not a through-composed opera—at times, characters will converse by one singing and the other speaking—is about as close as an American musical comes to such a dramatic work. The plot—contented housewife and mother of two Cathy Whitaker (Kelli O’Hara) discovers that her loving husband Frank (Steven Pasquale) is a tortured and closeted homosexual and that she is falling in love with her black gardener’s son Raymond Deagan (Isaiah Johnson)—remains pure (or impure) soap opera, but the emotions flow directly from the songs, which are tied to the characters’ reactions to what they can’t initially comprehend.

The problem is that, with a few exceptions—notably Cathy’s solo numbers “Tuesday, Thursday” and “Heaven Knows”—music and lyrics don’t reach the lyrical flights necessary to make these relationships transcend their melodramatic trappings. It also doesn’t help that, as in the movie, the other characters are painted so broadly that the lead trio ends up looking ridiculous while thrashing out complicated problems against such a caricatured backdrop.

Still, Michael Greif directs savvily on Allen Moyer’s elaborately moving jungle gym set; Kenneth Posner’s ingenious lighting and Catherine Zuber’s vibrant costumes underscore the Peyton Place setting. Johnson is a silky-voiced Raymond, Pasquale a complexly conflicted Frank, and O’Hara—one of our musical theatre’s true treasures—a marvelous Cathy whose inner turmoil is convincingly enacted. O’Hara’s singing, sublimely effortless, easily carries the heroine’s myriad of emotions whenever the creators’ words and music fall short.

Pisoni and Elrod in The Explorers Club (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Nell Benjamin’s ramshackle farce The Explorers Club, the heroine, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), breaks through a glass ceiling in 19th century London by flying over it in her homemade airship. This ludicrously implausible bit of plotting not only doesn’t detract from Benjamin’s goofy concoction but helps it become a very funny two-hour diversion.

The year is 1879 at the “Explorers Club,” where several self-proclaimed intrepid men of science and adventure meet for drinks, cigars and small talk. Then Phyllida’s name is floated at a meeting as the first woman to join: despite her pedigree—finding a fabled lost city and bringing back a “savage”—she meets with fierce resistance by a bumbling lot of swelled heads.

Putting the crazed plot in motion is Luigi, the “savage” (so named by Phyllida because she names all her pets thus, say her twin sister late in the play), slapping the Queen while being presented to her (that’s his people’s way of shaking hands, you see): the empire wants to invade his homeland, but club members hide Phyllida and Luigi from advancing troops before all and sundry are straightened out to everyone’s satisfaction.

The plot is exceedingly silly—and gets exceedingly sillier—but Benjamin writes hilariously wacky dialogue for her blustery, idiotic men’s clubbers, along with a most inventive and astounding bit of physical comedy. Director Marc Bruni keeps the pace manic without going overboard, and Donyale Werle’s gorgeously burnished set of the club’s interior, Philip Rosenberg’s magisterial lighting and Anita Yavich’s spot-on costumes couch the exaggerated lunacy in perfect-looking “reality.”

In a formidable cast, best are John McMartin as Professor Sloane, the club’s resident  sexist, who alternates between insulting women and misreading the Bible; Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway—in love with Phyllida—whose agile athleticism once drinks start flying in all directions is redoubtable; David Furr as blustering ladies’ man Harry Percy, whose pitch-perfect line readings are arrogantly clueless; and Carson Elrod, painted blue as Luigi, who, while hiding in plain sight as the club’s bartender, sparks the juggernaut of flying drinks that each cast member catches to rousing applause, a trick smartly repeated during the curtain call.

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