|Austin Pendleton, Thom Christopher and Justin Grace in Another Vermeer.|
Last week was a bad one for plays about frustrated painters. Another Vermeer, about a notorious forger, felt as inauthentic as Dutch painter Han van Meegeren's fake Vermeers (though it was good to see former One Life to Live villain Thom Christopher again). My Time Out review.
I liked Marcy in the Galaxy a little more. The opening number was quite hopeful and charming. Then the music stopped, the characters started talking and I knew we were in trouble. I think the point was for Marcy to come across as amusingly neurotic, but, even when played by an actress as lovely as Donna Lynne Champlin, she was such an unappealing mess that it was hard to sympathize. Yet she was far from the most insufferable character on stage. That honor rests with the two bitter old women eating in the same diner who spew venom at each other and everyone around them. (Leonard Jacobs' Back Stage review nicely sums up the situation.)
Why three of the six characters in that show are only peripherally connected to the titular character, I cannot fathom. The other two, Marcy's mother and sister, exist either in flashbacks or in a space where they can't interact with her. Where are the friends and colleagues who actually mean something to her? At the very least, couldn't they have popped by the diner to say hello?
Not to pick on the Transport Group, a company that I greatly admire for its herculean quest to stage new Off-Broadway musicals, but I had a similar problem with the group's fall production, Crossing Brooklyn, which also involved a female protagonist in emotional turmoil, this time after 9/11. Like Marcy, she spent most of the show wallowing and reflecting instead of moving forward. Which led me to wonder: Besides her husband, where are the other people in her life? Even if her family's not in New York, surely she has friends, neighbors and colleagues who mean something to her that she could interact with, instead of merely fringe characters like the women in the park and the men at the cafe.
The day after I caught Marcy, I saw South Pacific at Lincoln Center (more on this later, when I have time to gush), and since then I've been wondering when and why musical got so small? I know, I know -- economics. But when I say small, I'm not simply talking about fewer cast members and little scenery. I mean small in scope. It seems as if that old saw about writing what you know steers a lot of aspiring musical theater writers in the wrong direction. There is so much at stake in South Pacific. Beyond the outcome of World War II, the personal stakes are so high for Nellie and Emile and Joe and Liat that they imbue the songs with great passion.
Although there's nothing like a big-scale Broadway musical with a 30-piece orchestra, what musical theater needs is big stories and big emotions, and those don't require big budgets.