Perhaps because I still remember the pulse-quickening effect that a tiny New York Times headline—”Stoppard/Sondheim”—had on me some 15 years ago, I had inordinate expectations for last Sunday’s openings of Indian Ink and Sweeney Todd. Rapier wit and slashing razors seemed the perfect way to kick off a new theater season.
As with the headline (which topped a story on the Broadway Softball League standings, alas, rather than an announcement of the century’s most sophisticated theatrical collaboration), what followed proved a trifle anticlimactic. In the Studio Theatre’s inventively staged, intellectually engaging evening about an Englishwoman’s journey to Rajasthan in the ’30s, playwright Tom Stoppard is in a more reflective, less playful mood than usual. And at Signature Theatre’s eagerly anticipated revival of the Sondheim show that put it on the theatrical map in 1991, something similar might be said of director Eric Schaeffer.
Stoppard’s mood stems from nostalgia. He lived in India as a child and evidently relished the then-British colony’s sounds, smells, heat, dust, and, especially, speech patterns. In this stage adaptation of a play originally commissioned for radio, he introduces a fictional, faintly scandalous poet named Flora Crewe (Isabel Keating), who is traveling in the subcontinent for her health. While there, she attracts the attention of two suitors, a soft-spoken Indian artist named Nirad Das (Faran Tahir), who asks if she’ll sit for a portrait while composing her poems—art capturing art, as it were—and a proper young English officer (Rufus Collins), who mostly wants to take her for rides in the country. A few cross-cultural tensions burp to the surface, mostly when Nirad and Flora misunderstand some social gesture or other, but nothing that might threaten the smooth decorum of British colonialism.
Interspersed with the scenes in which Flora alternately excites and disappoints the men who find her so enchanting are more contemporary sequences, set in the ’80s, in which the poet’s elderly sister, Eleanor (June Hansen), serves tea, cake, and snippets of 65-year-old gossip to American scholar Eldon Pike (Hugh Nees) and Anglo-Indian painter Anish Das (Ronobir Lahiri), each of whom is searching for clues to Flora’s life in the letters and mementos she left behind.
Stoppard made somewhat more artful use of literary sleuthing as a structural device in Arcadia, but it works reasonably well here, with Pike occasionally popping out of his own time frame to interrupt Flora in the ’30s with singularly unhelpful footnotes. Flora, at one point, swats them away while he’s spouting them, as if she heard the buzz of history the way most people hear gnats—one of many nice touches in Joy Zinoman’s lushly observant staging.
What neither the character nor the director can brush off quite so easily is the impression that Indian Ink is minor Stoppard: a thinnish, if three-hour-long, play in which the author is noodling idly about colonialism’s disconnects (much as he did in Night and Day) and on the romantic life of artists (as he did in The Real Thing) without really having much left to say on either subject. His writing is more graceful than quip-strewn this time out—which is a bit of a disappointment, because he’s nearly always most trenchant when he’s being flippant, as, for instance, when he has Nirad observe that India has “so many languages that English is the only one the [anti-Brit] nationalists can communicate in.”
Still, many patrons will find lesser Stoppard more fun to sit through than top-flight anyone else, and Studio’s East Coast premiere of the play certainly provides plenty to enjoy. The large ensemble is strikingly well-cast, from Keating’s briskly flapperish Flora, to Tahir’s alternately explosive and demure Nirad, to the assured Anglophile that Lahiri (who also contributed the production’s original score) makes of Nirad’s son. Hansen, meanwhile, breathes enough attitude into Eleanor’s postcolonial, white-man’s-burden zingers (“We were your Romans, you know,” she announces testily at one point, “when we might have been your Normans”), that the fussily proper ex-Communist emerges as something more than the Maggie Thatcher joke Stoppard seems to have intended.
Physically, the production is attractive and spare, with Joseph Appelt’s amber sunsets dappling Russell Metheny’s stenciled walls and Helen Q. Huang’s diaphanous costumes as a central turntable whisks the action from ’30s India to ’80s London and back again. What Stoppard means to stir up with all that whirling is the dust of history, and I suppose he succeeds. Still, the dust settles awfully quickly—which means his passage to India, evocative enough while you’re watching it, barely leaves a trace in the memory.
Memory poses a different problem for Stephen Sondheim’s throat-slitting masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, which the Signature Theatre has brought back in a well-sung but chilly mounting that’s far less compelling than was the company’s staging eight years ago. That earlier production made such a point of intimacy—with patrons grouped in clusters mere inches from where Sweeney was slicing up his customers, and where his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, was baking them into pies—that you felt, while watching it, as if you’d been drafted into the chorus.
This time, blood isn’t the only body fluid being spilled—there are saliva and semen, too—but it’s all flowing at a distinct remove. Lou Stancari’s multilevel setting pushes Sweeney’s Tonsorial Parlor and Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop into the farthest corner of the playing area, leaving an inexplicably wide gulf—almost 30 feet—between the principal players in their most crucial scenes and the front row of the audience.
In a show with no dancing and only a couple of crowd scenes (which, oddly enough, get pushed forward), this stage configuration puts the visual emphasis on all the wrong places. Add a shoulder-level ramp that requires performers to stoop beneath it on entrances, a second doorway to a death chamber that for plot purposes can have only one way out, and a barber-chair chute mechanism that makes no physical sense whatever, and it’s a wonder the action doesn’t look completely aimless. Credit Schaeffer’s deftness with stage images for whatever clarity remains, though the geography of that set is confusing enough that midway into the evening, he just throws up his hands and has performers talk through walls, make entrances from pantries, and wander upstairs into a cellar.
Their emotional journeys are substantially clearer, although, even where matters of character are concerned, this production has peculiarities. Rather than starting the evening wild-eyed and ending up mad as a hatter, for instance, Norm Lewis’ Sweeney starts out brooding and then gets seriously upset. He has an attractive, smoky voice and a forthright stage presence, so this smoldering approach has certain virtues—it makes the love Donna Migliaccio’s splendid Mrs. Lovett feels for him more plausible—but it also takes much of the grandness out of the show’s guignol, reducing the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the serial killer next door: just another wronged dude with a grievance.
Schaeffer has other characters take up some of the emotional slack. Vicious Judge Turpin (a leering, genuinely creepy Lawrence Redmond) not only flagellates himself while singing an ode to the barber’s daughter, he reaches inside his judicial robes in mid-lyric, groans out her name, and then smears cum on his chest. Little Tobias ain’t so little in this production (Michael Sharp is the same guy who played the role at Signature eight years ago), so when he puts a bit of a snarl into his final chorus of “Not While I’m Around,” he seems a legitimate protector for Mrs. Lovett. Migliaccio (also a returnee from the first production, and in even better voice this time) makes the unprincipled baker at once hilarious and haunting. And Chad Kimball’s lovesick but determined Anthony isn’t the milquetoast that most performers make him—which is a good thing, because Jennifer Royall plays his beloved Johanna as such an assertive ingenue (too assertive, really, even sassing the judge she’s supposed to be so afraid of) that if Anthony were a wuss, she’d eat him alive.
In short, the production has strengths (including an accomplished orchestra under the direction of Jon Kalbfleisch) that pretty much balance its weaknesses. It also has moments that will startle even die-hard Sondheim fans, among them buckets of blood, a gore-soaked change purse into which Mrs. Lovett brightly shoves bonbons, and a few minor lyric changes (reportedly restorations of vulgarisms the cast album bowdlerized: “like a fucking machine he was,” for instance, rather than “like a perfect machine he was”).
All of which makes for a Sweeney Todd that’s more respectful than riveting. Newcomers probably won’t mind, because the show still works. But those with memories that run more to glory than to gory should try to leave them at the door. CP