Sondheim and Ayckbourn
Stephen Sondheim musicals and Alan Ayckbourn plays are very different in focus as well as in genre. After all, the former range from the fairy tale exploration of “Into the Woods” to the macabre yet lyrical musings of “Sweeney Todd” while the latter—notably “Absurd Person Singular” and “The Norman Conquests”—often reflect on both the ironic involvements and conflicted emotions of modern English domestic life. Differences aside, each prolific veteran theater titan does examine the nature of relationships, marriages and commitments. We have two examples currently on stage— Sondheim, in his 1970 musical “Company’ and Ayckbourn, in his 2011 dark comedy “Neighborhood Watch,” both currently at the Boston Center for the Arts . While Ayckbourn’s overlong but topical 75th play lacks the kind of brilliant vitally that distinguishes Sondheim’s 1970 Tony Award winner, both BCA efforts-—Moonbox Production’s Calderwood Pavilion debut with “Company” and Zeitgeist Stage Company’s Black Box Theatre area premiere of “Neighborhood Watch” —possess a thoughtful design and a largely convincing ensemble.
Bobby(also known as Robert), the somewhat enigmatic hero of “Company,” has become an icon of ambivalence-,emotional and sexual. Fearful of commitment, he seems to be more of a friend and a confidant than a lover. Reaching 35 as the musical starts, he struggles to actually live rather than merely exist. The title plays on the tricky nature of human relationships—with ‘company’ at once comforting and all too safe—especially for Bobby.
Complicating life even further for this conflicted hero is his sexuality. Many theatergoers have wondered whether Bobby is bi-sexual or gay. Bobby seems phobic about commitment to any one of three very different women that he has been dating. During a once-controversial number not seen in the original staging but included in the Tony Award-winning revival (with bi-sexual Raul Esparza giving a heart-wrenchingly brilliant performance as Bobby) , he and equally conflicted but married friend Peter admit to past sexual activity with men, though both insist they are not gay. Peter even makes a quick pass that Bobby understatedly ignores. Last October, in fact, out composer Sondheim —with the interest of out director John Tiffany (“Once” and A.R.T.’s revival of “The Glass Menagerie,” closing February 23 on Broadway) admitted he was considering working on a new production in which Bobby is gay and has multiple boyfriends.
Distinctions about sexuality notwithstanding, what all such considerations share is Bobby’s climactic moment of truth about embracing his inner life, a realization movingly expressed in his cathartic epiphany-like solo “Being Alive.’ As fans of this musically snappy show know, Sondheim sharply observes a diversity of marriages through the five couples that mean to help their great friend make a true emotional commitment. For the most part, under Allison Olivia Choat’s expert direction, most of the Moonbox Production’s actors do well with the ups and downs of the various pairs and differences between them.
Matthew Zahnzinger is a standout as heavy-drinking Harry. The sequence in which he, Bobby—played with convincing ambivalence by Dave Carney—and Harry’s peppy wife Sarah-played with good spirit by Anne Colpits- fall into a physically comical karate trio combines affecting friendship with hearty bromance. Dave Carney does well moving Bobby from vicarious enjoyment of his friends’ pleasurable experiences to despair about his own life and determination to move forward undaunted. Brian Bakofen wisely underplays Peter’s candor with Bobby about sexuality. Shonna Cirone catches Amy’s pre-marriage jitters, and Peter Mill has appealing energy as her supportive fiancé Paul. Katie Clark is particularly winning as Bobby’s naïve flight attendant date April. Premier Hub actress-singer Leigh Barrett brings together rich tone and satisfying attitude as Joanne in her gadfly character’s famous signature number “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The only weak link is Rick Sherburne’s weak evocation of Joanne’s understanding husband Larry.
Director Choat has actors move furnishings in and out between scenes and given the show’s look a relatively spare design—though Jeffrey Saltzberg’s nuanced lighting rates special notice- perhaps in order to avoid distracting from the insights and sparkle of the buoyant score. Moonbox Productions’ first staging in the Roberts Theatre is an auspicious one. “Company” has fun and feeling for singles and couples- gay and straight alike-at the Calderwood.
Company, Moonbox Productions, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 1. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com
In the light of more news from Florida with its disturbing “Stand Your Ground” defense, Ayckbourn’s 75hy play “Neighbourhood Watch” takes on added topicality. While residents at the fictional English Bluebell Hill Development—set “now and four months ago”—are virtually obsessive-compulsive about their security, their growing paranoia and overreactions lead to rushes to judgment, cruel and unusual punishments –including (unseen)stocks that 18th century Salem would admire- and severe invasions of privacy. Comic and ironic confusions and misunderstandings escalate to arson and death . Overlong and often predictable in its plotting, “Neighbourhood Watch” should have been policed by its author so that the humor would be more infectious and the insights more compelling.
Even so, Zeitgeist Stage artistic director and scenic designer David Miller, who has demonstrated a flair for Ayckbourn’s work (“My Wonderful Day” and particularly “Time of My Life”), gives the number three unit of the development-that of Martin Massey and his sister Hilda—a handsome appointment and provides moments of satisfying humor and absorbing conflict with the help of a largely persuasive cast. Bob Musset has the right mixture of hesitation and vulnerability as Martin , the unlikely leader of the watch. Shelley Brown catches his repressed sister’s ostensible propriety on the one hand and her growing desire for married but abused and unhappy music teacher Magda Bradley—played with good innocence by Lynn R. Guerra—on the other. Anne Maria Shea is properly nosy as Hilda’s friend Dorothy Doggett, and Ashley Risteen‘s fetching Amy Jenner has the right chemistry with Musset’s Martin. Best of all is Robert Bonotto’s alternately reserved and expressive performance as Amy’s quirky husband Gareth. Bonotto’s deliciously sadistic description of punishment devices and the difference between a pillory and a stockade is alone worth the price of admission.
“Neighbourhood Watch” may be lesser Ayckbourn, but Zeitgeist Stage continues to make the most of its ongoing association with his attractive theatrical property.
Neighbourhood Watch, Zeitgeist Stage Company, Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 1. 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com
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