'Company' Shows the Many Complexities of Marriage, Set to Jazz (4.5 stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
Company, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, directed by Spiro Veloudos, with Catherine Stornetta, Music Director, Rachel Bertone, choreography and musical staging, Janie E. Howland, Scenic Design, Rafael Jaen, Costume Design, Frank Meissner, Lighting Design, and Andrew Duncan Will, Sound Design, runs September 2 - October 9, 2016 at the Lyric Stage. See www.lyricstage.com.
Company is an unusual play with an unusual message. Bobby is confused about whether he should keep dating or settle down as he gets older and all of his friends marry. However, the play does not have a mainstream plot with antagonists, problems to solve, tension, and a resolution. It also isn't a character study, because we don't get to know the characters that deeply, with the scenes spread across five different married couples, and then Bobby and the various women he dates. Instead it's a commentary on marriage, a character study of lifelong love and commitment.
This is all intentional and a great strength of the script, not a flaw, but you can't go into Company expecting a murder mystery or a typical romance with an obvious couple you know will connect in the end. The play does not have villains or even cruelty. The show is much more about asking questions than what happens to Bobby.
The scenery puts Bobby in the crucible by highlighting the sharp edges and monochromatic blue of New York, a city that can make you feel alone in a crowd. The show was first produced in 1970, but the characters are "squares", too old to be hippies, so they don't wear the bright patterns we associated with the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, some of its themes date it. If you get divorced, are you used up? Is it valid to never marry? Society has answered these questions in the last 45 years. But we still empathize with Bobby's angst.
The play featured five couples who are each the focus of just one or two real scenes, creating a challenge for the Lyric Stage cast to define their personalities immediately -- which they do brilliantly. Kudos to Kerri Wilson (Sarah) for hilarious physical comedy in fighting with her stage husband. Eric Spyres (Amy) is pitch perfect and hilarious as the nervous bride and Paul (Tyler Simahk) helps her make a difficult turn. Every cast member shines in the show, where the vignettes are so short and compressed that they must express chemistry, love, the comfort that comes with marriage, and that's before they layer on top showcasing all the problems that come with dating and marriage.
Bobby is an antihero played admirably by John Ambrosino. His lack of response and dulled expression, the sort of acting that Jake Gyllenhaal is so good at, turns Bobby from an everyman into simply a sounding board for the rest of the cast. But perhaps that is appropriate, since Company does not set up Bobby to be particularly likeable. He complains about his birthday so much that he does not seem to appreciate all the friends he has. He's so indecisive that it's hard to root for him. The play's commentaries about marriage come from the rest of the cast.
The production is raised to a higher level by a live band playing soft jazz, with clarinet, piano, and muted trumpet. The sometimes dissonant, often arrhythmic numbers are not the showtunes you expect from a musical, but I did find myself humming "City of Strangers" and other numbers all week. The show does not work on all levels. It's a bit too much for New Yorkers. It's unclear why Act 1 is so dark and Act 2 is brighter with dance numbers. Bobby's melancholy becomes repetitive. The unecessary use of answering machines and cell phones conflicts with the 1970s scenery, costuming, and themes of the show.
Normally, I avoid plays with a dark edge and an unclear ending, but Company is surprisingly effective. We see how little frustrations in marriage are overcome with longtime comfort of knowing each other. The conflicts show us how couples challenge each other in ways both bad and good. It shows us how foolish we can be, but also how the courage of a fool can be rewarded. Is marriage worth it or not? Is love real or all a mistake? Ultimately, we learn that it's both. It's the best of times and the worst of times. People are too complicated to be pigeonholed. But for some, yes, marriage is the answer.
Director Spiro Veloudos has a mastery of all these nuances, which come through in the show. It's inspiring. It's depressing. It makes you think. Instead of being clean like a car chase, it's tangled like life is. I'm glad to give Company 4.5 stars.