Things grow, and things change, and things die, just in time for another round on the carousel—not least relationships. And poets and playwrights and songwriters, as you may have noticed, have noticed. The British dramatist David Hare and the Broadway team of Kander & Ebb are but two of the theatrical forces to weigh in on the subject, but their observations don’t carry a lot of, well, weight—at least not in the polished yet ultimately underwhelming productions now representing them in Washington.
Don’t think the “blue” in Hare’s buzzed-about one-act The Blue Room is the blue of blue movies. That’s just the marketing hype. Yes, Hare’s play, loosely adapted from a century-old Viennese succès de scandale called La Ronde, is essentially a series of couplings, and yes, breathless Brit crits used phrases such as “pure theatrical Viagra” to describe the performance (or was it the brief nudity?) of Nicole Kidman, who starred in the play’s 1998 premiere at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
But The Blue Room is less the bawdy than the moody kind of blue. It’s a study of desire painted in that bleak hue, a circular chart of the perpetual anticipation that, as another 20th-century stage auteur has pointed out, is so bad for the heart. Two actors depict a chain-chain-chain of lovesick fools, each character liaising briefly—sometimes hopefully, sometimes just desperately—with the next, who moves on to another, who…You get the idea. La Ronde got the censors’ backs up when it premiered, but even six years ago, The Blue Room didn’t excite anything but a certain prurient curiosity about how Ms. Kidman’s gifts would hold up onstage.
Unfortunately, the play’s spiral of sexual yearnings sounds more interesting than it actually is. Hare doesn’t offer up anything terribly profound or terribly new about the aspects and accidents of love—for all its bleak ambivalence, the play doesn’t begin to approach the complexity of stronger works such as Plenty, Racing Demon, or even Via Dolorosa. It’s wry, bemused and amused and occasionally amusing, never devastated or devastating; it’s the theatrical equivalent of a knowing shrug.
The Blue Room is essentially an extended exercise for the actors, who play individuals of various stripes and measures of success: A Cockney naif of a hooker, a cab driver, a Continental au pair, a lonely politician, his stifled wife, a pretentious playwright, his stage-star lover, and so on. But although the twosome tackling the show at the Signature Theatre are game and giving, they’re not much more than middling good. Deborah Hazlett (you might remember her, if you’re lucky, from Woolly Mammoth’s incendiary production of Bug years ago) and Rick Holmes prove adept enough with Hare’s humor, but they lose themselves in the ever-perilous thicket of uncertain accents. (Hare, like many a Brit playwright, means his characters’ speech to carry shorthand clues about class and attitude that go begging here.) And the play’s moments of feeling remain stubbornly on the surface; it’s as though Hazlett and Holmes never have enough time with any one character to get under the skin.
Director Wendy C. Goldberg puts up a stylish frame for the action—especially the intertwined lighting and set by Michael Brown—but the evening flags before its 90-odd minutes are quite up. For a show that makes a recurring joke out of stamina, that can’t be good. Still: The fact that nothing ends well, one character observes, hardly makes life not worth living, and I suppose that goes for half-cooked theater, too.
If life is indeed a bitch and then you die, you might as well shrug off your inhibitions and…sing about it, in any number of styles: bitter, wiseass, defiant, chipper, or maudlin. This is the lesson of The World Goes ’Round, a generally stylish if somewhat overstuffed revue celebrating the prodigious career of Cabaret/Chicago/Kiss of the Spider Woman duo John Kander and Fred Ebb now at Round House Theatre Bethesda.
They know, these two dangerously cuddly old reprobates, one of the realities Hare is trying to get at in The Blue Room—that the experience of love is rarely as transporting as the anticipation of it—and they distill fine, worldly music from that hard truth. The World Goes ’Round parades both hits (“All That Jazz” and several other numbers from Chicago) and worthy misses (“We Can Make It” and others from The Rink, which Signature staged several years back), along with a few delightful surprises: “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” from 70, Girls, 70, would play like an anti-Starbucks salvo if the cast weren’t waving Caribou Coffee cups, and co-director/choreographer Patdro Harris proves he has a sense of humor with his enthusiastic staging of “Pain,” a hilarious swipe at sadistic prima-donna dance auteurs.
Inevitably, there are one or two downright uncharacteristically bland obscurities, as well, but Harris and co-director Jerry Whiddon make smooth, palatable work of this omnibus—which is a little curious, come to think of it, given that the creators of “The Cell Block Tango” have always made a specialty of being unsettling. Still, the show is good-looking, the cast—particularly invaluable veterans Sherri Edelen and Jane Pesci-Townsend—gifted and engaging, and the tunes by and large delicious. It probably couldn’t hurt to give this World a spin.CP