Maybe the temptation, amid this our permanent war, was overpowering. Or maybe it was the influence of bomb-thrower Howard Barker and social critic Henrik Ibsen, whose pointed dramatism is playing concurrently in the smaller spaces on the Olney Theatre Center’s beehive of a campus. One way or another, though, director Jim Petosa has been inspired to squeeze Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris for every drop of its political juice—and then some.
Problem is, the effort of the near-constant wringing crushes the ripe beauty of the Belgian-born troubadour’s tunes. Sure, this revue has always had a rawness in its voice, a smudge of exhaustion under its eyes, a certain cynicism in its posture: Jacques Brel the man was a teenager during World War II, and Jacques Brel the show got its start in Greenwich Village circa 1966, as American discontent with the Vietnam War was gathering. And sure, there’s plenty of implicit disillusionment in songs like “Sons Of,” with its catalog of the boys who will be cannon fodder, and “Next,” with its brutally efficient suggestion that every war is a rape and every soldier a victim.
But there’s an unquenchable romance and an unmistakable humor in Brel’s French-inflected worldview, as well, and too frequently those notes get lost in the supersized spectacle Petosa deploys on Olney’s New Mainstage. An attractive cast of eight (only four were required in the compact, cabaret-style original) swings from, loiters under, and parades about in the shadow of an Eiffel Tower arch that dominates the stage to the audience’s left. As a backdrop, designers James Kronzer and Daniel MacLean Wagner have turned an enormous gilded frame into an ever-shifting, often overstated photo album of atrocity and amour. Noisy, gaudy numbers such as “Marathon” and “The Bachelor’s Dance” sprawl across the width of the stage, players collaborate to roll an enormous mock-up of Notre Dame’s rose window from the wings (though never to any discernible purpose), and in the show’s last moments, the framed screen flies away to reveal—well, it’s presumably meant as a surprise, so let’s not spoil it. But it makes little sense and less of an impact.
What does land—and movingly, too—are the rare moments Petosa has allowed to retain a sense of intimacy: “Fanette,” whose elusive melody swirls like brook water, sung solo before a portrait of a veiled woman with startling eyes. “Old Folks,” acted tenderly by a nonsinging duo amid a chorus that muses humanely on the inexorable arc of life. “Amsterdam,” a thoroughly jaded number given a stirringly simple reading.
And then there’s that damn-near shattering rendition of “You’re Not Alone”: “We wish away our lives/I swear the sun will rise,” goes the lyric to that song, an aching thing about comforting shoulders and broken days, and behind the singer a fuzzy Vietnam-era photo says another thousand words’ worth. For once, here’s an image equal to the show’s gorgeously crafted songs, and it reveals itself with breath-catching eloquence. This time, there’s no effort in this effort to connect Brel’s small-scale narratives to the scars on the sweet face of our wide world.
A similar case of projectionitis—what, did Olney get a twofer discount?—and an ill-modulated performance or three threaten to undercut the Potomac Theatre Project’s otherwise agreeable take on An Experiment With an Air Pump, a sort of costume drama with metaphysical aspirations by English writer Shelagh Stephenson. It’s timely-ish, so much so that this is the second Washington-area staging this season: Journeymen Theater took a pass at it in January at the Clark Street Playhouse.
That production, incidentally, earned a Helen Hayes nomination for actress Lindsay Allen, who played a servant girl who turns out to be central to the plot—which, to keep it short, is a kind of domestic-drama parallelogram with ethical, temporal, and adolescent complications. A radical scientist (Stephen F. Schmidt) and his literary-minded wife (Connan Morrissey) prepare to celebrate the end of the 18th century in the company of their polar-opposite twin daughters (Lily Balsen and Lauren Turner Kiel), a pair of Papa’s research-minded colleagues (Clinton Brandhagen and Bill Army), and that servant (Tara Giordano), who’s got a hunchback, an attitude, and a mind like a steel trap.
Friction ensues—between the great man, impatient with his missus’ less-than-rigorous mind, and the understandably resentful madam, who’s naturally never been taught to think critically; between the sisters, one flighty and boy-focused, the other a budding test-tube-twiddler in Daddy’s mold; and between the visiting scholars, who spar over whether the course of scientific inquiry needs must be charted with a moral compass. The last two squabble, too, over their conflicting interests in that servant girl.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the 21st century, a brilliant geneticist (Morrissey as the alpha spouse this time) and her English-professor husband (Schmidt, relegated to the supporting-player role) find themselves worrying over the expense of keeping up the huge country home she’s inherited and the prospect of a corporate job that will bring her pet fetal-diagnostics project finally to fruition—and possibly create an immense ethical snarl as doctors and parents and insurance companies jockey to define what exactly constitutes an unacceptable birth defect. Egged on by the wife’s crisp colleague (Laura C. Harris) and an easygoing handyman (Brandhagen again) who’s never met a pseudoscientific possibility he’s unwilling to credit, the two wrangle with the dynamics of their relationship, the implications of the job offer, and a disturbing discovery in the kitchen garden.
Cheryl Faraone, co-founder of the politically minded Theatre Project, frames all of this clearly enough on Olney’s familiar old main stage, which serves this time around as both playing ground and auditorium. The audience occupies a bank of seats backstage, facing out past the players, with a screen lit with image after huge, suggestive image where the curtain ought to be.
It’s those images, partly, that make the production feel a little portentous: Beginning with the obvious one—the play takes its title from an 18th-century painting by Joseph Wright of Derby—designers Alexander Cooper and Justin Thomas move on through pastoral scenes (English waterscapes), tragic tableaux (Ophelia goes floating by), and the equally inevitable dissecting-theater narrative by Thomas Eakins. (That last one just in case you hadn’t figured out why Brandhagen’s ingratiating, amoral anatomist seems so smitten with a malformed charwoman.) There’s an equivalent obviousness to some of the performances, but Schmidt and Morrissey anchor things nicely, delivering a pair of convincingly drawn crisis moments as their characters’ relationships reach potential breaking points two centuries apart. Brandhagen turns in two cleanly defined characterizations, as well, and both Army and Harris do neatly effective work—although the latter’s part is especially underwritten.
Giordano’s is the crucial role, though, and her performance is the most problematic: Broadly drawn to the point of caricature, at least initially, her snarling, defensive serving girl shades too late into the sympathetic, which means it’s harder to mourn the cruel tricks both life and science play on her. In a work as rich and as clever as this one, the miscalculation isn’t fatal—it’s just that this Experiment can’t quite be said to be conclusive.CP