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Two worlds in flux, two men flailing anxiously there at the cusp of change, two women who’d comfort them if they could: See Chekhov’s Ivanov and Michael John LaChiusa’s The Highest Yellow and you’ll be surprised to discover how much the two shows share.
They’re both benchmarks: Ivanov opens the Studio Theatre’s superb new house, a high-ceilinged, 200-seat jewel of a space; and The Highest Yellow—the Signature Theatre’s first-ever musical commission, a world premiere five years in the making—sets a new standard for that ambitious company, with a trio of splendid leads, A-list Broadway talents all, in a new work from one of theater’s most gifted young composers. Genius and self-doubt come into play in both shows. And both productions feel roughly half-baked.
Gifted, educated, forward-thinking Ivanov stands like Micromegas among the shallow, greedy country gentry of Chekhov’s decaying czarist Russia; the same is true for LaChiusa’s Vincent Van Gogh, utterly out of place among the rubes of provincial Arles, where he’s come to find and to embrace “the highest yellow”—his phrase for the almost-religious ecstasy of seeing the world new at sunrise, the creative madness that lets him leave his strange, shabby life and live within his art. But neither has the philosophical poise to cope with what he can see from his elevated vantage, so those glimpses of the sprawl of the universe and the smallness of man leave both paralyzed once the awe of discovery has passed. Ivanov and Highest Yellow both, in a way, are studies of depression.
Take Philip Goodwin’s Ivanov, with his books and his bankrupt plantation and his almost brutal indifference to the wife he once loved. Disillusionment doesn’t begin to describe the low this formerly vital man has reached. His progressive ideas about agriculture have ruined him. His intellect makes it impossible for him to feel anything but disgust for the petty rituals of the card-playing boors, the mean-spirited gossips, the hard-drinking country squires who are his only society—or anything but revulsion for himself. His despair leaves him unable to connect with anyone; he’s too enervated even to bear the weight of being needed, and his increasingly baroque self-hatred poisons even his relationship with the tubercular woman who’s literally dying for lack of his attention.
If Ivanov doesn’t have the strength (or at least not the nerve) to find a way forward, he knows all too well that the ways of the old world fading rapidly around him are no longer viable. Zinoman’s production, in fact, captures nothing so well as Chekhov’s understanding that the near-feudal conventions of 19th-century Russia would give way at any moment. Matrons walk half-dressed into parlors populated by men wearing old-fashioned shirts and jackets over jeans, or maybe cargo pants; a bride’s traditional wedding crown caps a dress that might have been ordered from Victoria’s Secret. Women wear their corsets outside their gowns—the stays are showing in Zinoman’s Russia, and the unmistakable implication is that artifice revealed can’t retain its power for long.
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Yet if it has smarts to spare, Zinoman’s ambitious housewarming hasn’t much heart. There are some terrific performances, true: Nancy Robinette is in fine form as a tightfisted martinet, and it’s marvelous to see David Sabin working in an intimate space. (He’s Ivanov’s uncle, a penniless count whose cynicism conceals a shattered heart.) And a compelling Susan Wilder wears desperation and righteous, blazing rage with equal conviction as the much-abused Anna, cut off from her family and her faith for Ivanov’s sake and now forced to watch from the sidelines as he seeks hope in the concerned ministrations of a younger woman. (Jenna Sokolowski is the production’s appealing, if never inspiring, Sasha.)
But the play’s much-noted unevenness, its awkward back-and-forth between intimately bleak two-character scenes and boisterous, almost vaudevillian party scenes, keeps you at an emotional arm’s length. More fatal is that Goodwin, who’d seem an obvious choice for the brooding title character, never uncovers anything sympathetic behind the character’s selfish unhappiness, so even when he lashes out at Anna—“You dirty Jew,” he famously calls her, in what’s either one of the play’s least convincing moments or one of its most penetrating insights into Ivanov’s self-destructive psychology—you feel precious little grief for his decline. And Tom Story’s uncomplicated, idealist doctor, usually a kind of mirror in which Ivanov sees glimpses of his younger self, seems merely preposterous here.
So as the play hurries on toward its inevitable conclusion—a pistol gets brandished for comic effect before intermission, and Chekhov’s famous gun rule guarantees it’s going to go off before the actors do—the audience can only disengage, degree by degree. By the time Ivanov’s battle with himself is ended, the story of his fall seems nearly as much trial as tragedy.
Not so The Highest Yellow: LaChiusa’s musical is never less than interesting, and often it’s positively ravishing. The angular score encompasses both discursive, fragmentary musical exchanges and set pieces that show off the gifts of its central threesome. There’s “Somewhere: Paris,” in which an ambitious young doctor dreams of a life more interesting than Arles can offer, and in which Jason Danieley gets his first chance to let his ringing tenor off the leash. There’s “His Heart,” a passionate aria for the hard-edged prostitute who loves Van Gogh and is loved to the point of obsession by Danieley’s Dr. Rey; it’s the first time we hear the husk and throb in the stirring voice of Judy Kuhn. And there’s that title number—you might expect some huge, heroic thing to describe Van Gogh’s mania, but LaChiusa, characteristically, turns in an elusive melody as erratic and strange and joyous as the motion of a lark. It’s an immensely rewarding challenge for Marc Kudisch, who’s called on to negotiate its complications while sitting naked and wet in a bathtub on Walt Spangler’s clean white hospital set.
It’s in the words, not the music, that The Highest Yellow underachieves. The lyrics tip occasionally toward the pedestrian (pity the supporting player asked to sing a couplet about how “the Mediterranean sun sautés/the Arlesian brain into mayonnaise”), but John Strand’s book itself is weaker still. It wants to glance at Van Gogh’s genius through his doctor’s awakening to a higher sensibility—and the madness that sensibility sparks in him, as it may have in Van Gogh. But for a show that purports to explore the overlaps between inspiration and insanity—and to ask what love has in common with each—The Highest Yellow feels an awful lot like a look at a garden-variety romantic triangle. The Rey character seems like a foil for Kudisch’s Van Gogh, rather than the other way ’round, and we don’t discover nearly enough about Kuhn’s Rachel to fathom why she should so obsess Rey—or grow so attached to Van Gogh. Kudisch’s painter, meanwhile, brings an arresting quality that somehow combines uncertain threat, tremendous vulnerability, and something both indefinable and a little otherworldly; Rey and Rachel, despite the fine performers who inhabit them, seem pallid by comparison.
Eric Schaeffer directs with confidence, choreographing shifts of mood and place with the aid of a superb design team—Daniel McLean Wagner’s lighting, especially, is as expressive as you’d expect in a show with this title and this subject—and an able supporting cast. But neither technical wizardry nor directorial skill can overcome the show’s underdeveloped conflicts or the thinness of its second act, in which everyone does pretty much what’s expected, no particularly complicated psychology gets explored, and no one finds any kind of closure, tragic or otherwise. Art, it turns out, can reveal—or conceal—only so much.CP