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What do you suppose it says about our uncertain times when two theater troupes in a single week inaugurate new stages with plays about crises of commitment? Signature Theater and the American Theater Project are both three years old and are both embarking on risky efforts to establish themselves in locations off the beaten theatrical track—the former in a revamped Arlington auto-bumper electroplating plant, the latter in an Anacostia storefront.
Considering the almost lunatic devotion required to produce theater in even ideal situations, dedication is presumably not in short supply at either company. Yet both are presenting portraits of individuals who panic when given an opportunity to commit—in Signature’s Company, to a loving relationship; and in American Theater Project’s The Contract, to a stronger relationship with God. Hard to say whether this signifies mere coincidence or both companies’ doubts about audience commitment.
At Signature, the protagonist’s questions have been been set in the past and at something of a distance—a distance neatly telegraphed by the New York subway sounds that fill the hallway leading from box office to black-box auditorium in the company’s spacious new quarters. But the time-travel nature of the journey isn’t clear until set designer Lou Stancari’s collage of architectural photos and brightly hued canvases looms into view, visually erasing the past quarter century in an explosion of pop art.
Written in 1970, Company was once a state-of-the-art musical. At a time when most tuners were plotted, saccharine, and heavier on velvets than on stage machinery, the show’s Broadway production was episodic, cynical, and fitted out with chrome, steel, and briskly moving elevators. Librettist George Furth’s jokes were knowingly acerbic, Stephen Sondheim’s songs offered a brittle counterpoint to stage action rather than arising from it, and the evening’s protagonist—a 35-year-old bachelor named Bobby—existed mostly to observe the marriages of his friends with clinical detachment. Very hip in its day, the show has become vaguely old hat as Sondheim has continued to extend musical theater’s reach. Company has, in fact, become nearly as much a period piece as its contemporaries, Hair and Grease.
Which would seem to make it ripe for rethinking by the troupe that miniaturized the Grand Guignol of Sweeney Todd and moved Assassins from a shooting gallery to an art gallery. Patrons who expect an equally unorthodox approach to Company, however, are in for a disappointment. Though director Eric D. Schaeffer’s production is well-sung, brisk, and reasonably imaginative-on-a-budget, it’s so essentially conventional that it might as well have been done at a dinner theater.
Part of the problem, oddly enough, is that the show’s once-sophisticated laughs are no longer compromised by a bitter aftertaste. Seventies audiences were expected to feel vaguely uneasy about the state of modern marriage as Bobby visited his friends, discovering that the ones who smiled most were getting divorces, while the ones who squabbled and practiced karate on one another were indissoluble. Whatever edge those notions had, of course, were lost well before the age of Married…With Children. As a result, Bobby’s surprise at the vignettes he witnesses now seems naive (Buzz Mauro’s energetically worldly performance notwithstanding), and the gaiety with which everyone pushes the comedy in book scenes seems overdone. The plaintive solo ditties fare better, partly because they’re superbly performed, but also because Sondheim wrote them to be chilly and self-contained. Megan Lawrence’s lonely-in-the-crowd lament, “Another Hundred People,” Nancy Dolliver’s uproariously frantic pre-wedding scream for help, “Getting Married Today,” and Judy Simmons’ fierce anthem of self-denunciation, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” all pack punches, while the scenes surrounding them feel flabby and attenuated.
The show’s big production numbers tend to reflect the dated show-biz conventions of the pre-Sondheim period. Though clever enough on its own terms, the song “Side by Side by Side,” which mocks Bobby’s third-wheel status with the couples who’ve befriended him, is a parody of vaudeville-era performance styles that, by now, have all but permanently receded from the audience’s collective memory. And a dance number representing Bobby’s sexual encounter with a stewardess, though athletically performed by Johanna Gerry, is just silly. Even though it is set in the ’70s, this show needs to have been reimagined for ’90s audiences.
That needn’t mean wholesale revamping, though it might be fun to see whether Company could work today from a female perspective (make the leading character a woman, and her predatory approach to dating would certainly play differently). Of course, that would necessitate extensive rewriting. Less drastic measures—imagining one of the couples as gay, or handicapped, or poverty-stricken, or multiethnic—would go a long way toward making the evening more compelling for contemporary audiences, which, let’s note, are themselves more diverse than they were in 1970.
All that said, the production fulfills pretty skillfully its less-than-aggressive agenda. The performances are all adequate, and in some cases more than that. It’s likely that Schaeffer and his designers were enthralled with the hugeness of the space their new building offers them, which led to a certain overbuilding. If the set were half as deep, it would be twice as effective, since it currently pulls the action too far upstage. Still, these are relatively minor problems. Signature will likely have a successful debut at its spacious new digs, which was no doubt the point of choosing a hit musical in the first place. Here’s hoping that success inspires it to take more chances in the future.
American Theater Project’s (ATP) new digs are less lavish, but the company’s presence in Anacostia is, all by itself, a far bolder step. Except for Arena Stage, which made its home on a freshly rebuilt Southwest waterfront, and the Shakespeare Theater’s stay on gentrified Capitol Hill, professional theater hasn’t exactly thrived outside Northwest Washington in the past half century. ATP, which has produced several shows in established locations—most notably Jonin’ at the Church Street Theater—has now taken up residence at 8Rock Performing Arts Center, a storefront on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue which is larger and better appointed than, say, Source Theater’s original home some 20 years ago on an equivalently run-down stretch of 14th Street NW.
For its first attraction, ATP has chosen to produce The Contract, an earnest religious drama by playwright-in-residence Nathan Ross Freeman which was successfully produced last year in New York. The play concerns a devout minister named the Rev. Jamison (Don W. Newton) who has been having dreams in which Jesus seems to want something from him. On this particular evening, as he seeks guidance through prayer, the Arch angel Gem (Willette Thompson) appears in the flesh to tell him, among other things, that “the distance between your pulpit and your congregation is confusing.” Noting that Jamison sits apart from his flock on a high-backed chair of red velvet, Gem wonders whether the preacher—though well-meaning, caring, and unquestionably pious—hasn’t strayed rather drastically from the Lord’s revealed teachings. The specific charge is that he and his contemporary brethren have violated their contract—by which Gem means the Holy Bible—with God by involving religion in miracle, mystery, and property. “You deliberately went back up that mountain and accepted Lucifer’s gifts,” Gem thunders. Jamison argues for a time, but slowly accepts that he has failed to live up to his faith. The arrival of Jesus (Kenneth Daugherty), mute and clearly in pain from humanity’s failings, clinches Jamison’s resolve to do better.
In The Contract, Freeman means to deal with nothing less than the state of contemporary Christianity. But having adopted subject matter with cosmic implications, he makes the mistake of treating it as a sermon rather than as a drama. Only on very rare occasions does the playwright indulge himself in dialogue that doesn’t sound as if it’s being delivered from a mountaintop. Those occasions are certainly welcome: When Jamison wonders why he’s been chosen for this vision, Gem responds, “Why not? Random sampling seemed appropriate.” And when the preacher wonders why now, rather than on Judgment Day, the archangel quips, “You don’t rate that level of critique.” Otherwise, though, the phrasing tends to run strongly toward the overblown (“your humankind is such a presumptuous entity”) or the platitudinous (“there can be no ego without individualism”).
The performers do what they can to lighten things, as does Ed Bishop’s generally reverent but occasionally puckish direction. Michael Stepowany’s simple rectory office is appropriately understated, while the fact that Michael Batiste’s lighting scheme often leaves the performers’ faces in shadow is compensated for by the intimacy of the auditorium. Grenoldo Frazier’s music adds an ethereal tension to later scenes. Still, both the play and the production are clearly designed for audiences for whom debates about Christian lapses are already central. Converting the rest of us doesn’t seem to be part of The Contract‘s agenda.