At the Goldman Theater of the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts

After years of producing plays and musicals in the cramped living room of a Jefferson Place townhouse, it’s perhaps natural that Theater J should inaugurate its handsome new Cecile Goldman Theater with a show set almost entirely in a cramped living room.

Bed and Sofa, an eccentric little “silent movie opera” adapted from a minor Soviet cinema classic, will likely be the least of the evening’s attractions even for the company’s loyal fans—it fits the space awkwardly and has a gapingly idiotic libretto—but it’s certainly an ambitious starting point for a company that is leaping from serving about 40 patrons a night to serving 240.

That the company’s long-suffering subscribers should now be served in comfort was obviously a priority, and in that respect, the steeply raked Goldman Theater at the renovated D.C. Jewish Community Center is a viewer-friendly knockout. From the gold, deco-pattern fabric on its comfortably spaced seats to the warm wood of its proscenium arch, nearly every detail contributes to the house’s elegant intimacy. And as this first production establishes, the performing space is similarly commodious. There’s ample room down front for both a thrust-stage apron and a five-piece band, not to mention enough vertical loft to fly chandeliers and truck tires should management ever be struck by the urge to tackle Lloyd Webber. At the back of the house is a booth outfitted with a pair of 35mm projectors (can multimedia be in Theater J’s future?) as well as loads of brand-new sound and lighting equipment. The house, in short, qualifies instantly as one of the city’s most welcoming.

Would that Bed and Sofa were so appealing, though it clearly means to be, with its bouncy take on romance and housing shortages in Stalinist Moscow. Based on a popular 1928 silent by Jewish filmmakers Abram Room and Victor Shklovsky, the story concerns a bored housewife named Ludmilla whose home life picks up markedly when her husband Kolya invites a down-on-his-luck war buddy to share a corner of their tiny apartment.

“You and we, sofa and bed,” sings Kolya in one of Laurence Klavan’s characteristically verb-free lyrics, and when a grateful Volodya accepts the offer, complications almost immediately ensue. Kolya gets called away on business, a casual night at the movies (apparently Chaplin’s Gold Rush, since there’s a lyric about dancing dinner rolls on forks) turns passionate, and before you can say “three’s a crowd,” Ludmilla is sharing her bed with Volodya, and Kolya has been relegated to the sofa. (Later developments suggest that if ’20s Moscow had been just a tad more liberated, Ludmilla might have ended up the triangle’s odd-woman-out, with the two men playing checkers in bed…but it wasn’t and they don’t.)

All this transpires in operatic fragments—brief musical scenes, sometimes only 20 or 30 seconds in duration, interrupted by stage business that is often unaccompanied by music. Since Klavan’s libretto sounds like an attempt to render a silent film’s title cards into lyrics, there may well be some central logic to this, but director Randye Hoeflich hasn’t found a way to make it flow onstage. Instead, she allows gaps and blackouts so her actors can mount the balconies and clamber to the top of the proscenium as if intent on using every inch of their new playing space. Alas, only when Polly Pen’s Mussorgsky-by-way-of-Sondheim score is propelling the action is there much energy to this. Let the sharp, five-piece band fall silent, and the evening flags instantly.

Actually, even when the musicians are playing expertly under Dan Sticco’s vigorous direction, the show is so handicapped by its libretto as to be nearly inert. “The train/ the train/the train,” sings Kolya by way of establishing that he’s traveling, adding, when he’s really on a roll, “the bird/the morning/the sun/the train/the city/the sky.” And upon returning from his road trip, he’s perfectly capable of trilling, “I have brought you coffee beans from Raskopf” over and over without variation for five minutes. This is admittedly preferable to the doggerel that occurs to him when he’s temporarily exiled from the apartment (“I’m never good in snow/I wear a hood in snow”) but it’s hardly food for thought.

What’s a poor actor to do when confronted with such material? Well, Stephen F. Schmidt is reasonably resourceful about finding nuances to the husband’s obtuseness, Jeffrey Coon works the interloper’s charming smile for all it’s worth, and Holly Rudkin folds linens and makes her bed while clambering all over it in fetching silent-comedy style.

All three (and especially Coon) are full-voiced enough not to need body mikes in so small an auditorium, but perhaps the company just wanted to try out all its new gear. That would also explain Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s unnecessarily busy setting, with its skewed constructivist lintels and rooftop horse statuary, and Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting, which is awfully colorful for a story that would seem to beg for black and white. Everyone’s doing professional work, in other words, but trying just a bit too hard.

Understandably so, since they’re finally working with so much more of everything—more headroom, more equipment, more raw potential—than they ever had in their cramped former quarters. No doubt, as they get accustomed to their new home, they’ll find ways to leave some of their freshly acquired toys offstage, and rediscover the spareness that made their best work effective on Jefferson Place. In the meantime, they—and their patrons in those plush, gold deco seats—are certainly sitting pretty.CP