Sexual Liberation Is So Last Century: “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” off-Broadway

The first quarter hour of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” depicts Bob and Carol at The Institute at Big Sur, a  ‘new age-y’ retreat, where the thirty-something couple is converted into a life-style based on a philosophy of “Don’t think. Feel.” No more empirical evaluations or judgements about one’s own or others’ restrictions, motivations, and such as jealousy, recrimination…or the need for clothing. The indoctrination process, overseen by a facilitator in individual and group sessions, is acted and directed in an effective way that makes what follows, while outlandish, plausible. At least in director Paul Mazursky’s 1969 movie in which Bob and Carl are played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood .

Now there’s the New Group’s off-Broadway musical adaptation at The Pershing Square Signature Center, which strains to replicate the feel of the film, falling more than a bit short. The “B & C & T & A” movie is not in a league with “Tootsie” or even “Pretty Woman,” both of whose stage adaptations felt like outtakes, but it shares with those two a unique quirk that just doesn’t translate to the stage. (It works both ways: think “A Chorus Line” or even “Phantom of the Opera.”)

Getting it on: From left, Bob (Joél Pérez), Alice (Ana Nogueira), Carol (Jennifer Damiano), and Ted (Michael Zegen) [Photos: Monique Carboni]

The problem is not the plot, which tracks the movie. Once indoctrinated, ultra-sophisticated Bob (Joél Pérez) and Carol (Jennifer Damiano), encourage their friends Ted and Alice, here Michael Zegen and Ana Nogueira (Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon in the movie), to join the ‘feeling’ fold. That judgement-free zone includes a blanket acceptance of sexual liberty. Dealing on stage or screen with extra-marital affairs and couples-swinging is no longer cutting-edge as it was when the film was released, but those are still racy topics. Or should be.

When Bob, un-prompted, confesses to a one night stand on the road with a temp clerk assigned to him (“divorced, making a living” in a sad, dated comment), Carol warmly embraces his  honesty, while Alice, when she hears of it, is outraged. But not for long. What ensues is a tangle of involvement, rejection, guilt and assignations. There are some funny lines along the way, and some would-be R-rated shenanigans, but despite the attractive foursome spending a considerable amount of time in their underwear (more the women than the men – what else is new), there’s a marked lack of chemistry among the four. Considering the material, the proceedings are strictly PG-13. (Mr. Pérez might want to re-think his baggy-whities.)

Ana Nogueira, left, as Alice and Jennifer Damiano (Carol)

The movie is not a musical, but the play is. Jonathan Marc Sherman’s derivative book is interrupted periodically by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green’s lyrics set to compositions by Sheik, whose “Spring Awakening” score was game-changing. Here not so much. With the principals maneuvering among microphone stands and hand mics dotting the set, the staging is frequnetly awkward, and the vocals, I guess intentionally, are less projected than crooned. Music director Jason Hart’s four-piece band, amped-up by Noelle Rueschman’s tripling on reeds, fills the gaps nicely, but the songs, mostly narrative, are undistinguished.

Band Leader (and others): Suzanne Vega

A device that must have seemed innovative has a “Band Leader” (but not really) standing at a mic up center, singing along with some of the songs and speaking as an occasional unseen character – the retreat-moderator for one, Alice’s therapist for another. Grammy-winning singer-song writer Suzanne Vega seems an odd choice for the role, in which every line she speaks is like the others. Her low-key manner barely projects, even on the mic.

Kelly Devine’s musical staging is minimal, and Scott Elliott’s overall direction seems centered on moving the title foursome around as they in turn shove the sofa-and-ottomans set pieces into and out of their bed configuration.

From left: Ted and Carol and Bob and Alice (Not a spoiler – it’s in the ads.)

I recall a lot about the 1960s and ‘70s, some of it with pleasure.  “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” did stir up some memories – designer Jeff Mahshie’s spot-on costumes capture the period. But overall, the title foursome was best served on the screen, where their hanky-panky originated.

Through March 28 at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, NYC. Tues, Thurs, Fri at 7:30; Wed at 2 & 7:30; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2pm. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. For tickets ($48-$103):

Be advised:  the characters smoke throughout the show. The cigarettes are herbal, not tobacco, but the smoke-smell drifts into the audience.

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Atten-HUT! Snap to for ” A Soldier’s Play” on Broadway

Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” it was originally staged by the off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company and made into a widely praised 1984 film (as “A Soldier’s Story”), with several holdovers from the play, including Adolph Caesar, who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his challenging role, and Denzel Washington in a pivotal one. The current Roundabout Theatre Company revival is the first Broadway production. (Revivals in 1996 and 2005 were off-Broadway.)

There is story and there is plot, as Stephen Sondheim said recently about “West Side Story,” and a good play combines the two. “A Soldier’s Play” is a good play, whose story is simple: A U.S. Army Sergeant has been shot to death on a stateside base by a person or persons unknown and a commissioned Captain has been assigned to solve the mystery.

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Forsooth? Fuggedaboudit! “Romeo and Bernadette”off-Broadway

If, as hypothesized, there are only seven basic plots, it is a sure bet that Shakespeare used them all. (I count four in “Hamlet” alone.) It is no wonder, then, that playwrights through the years have gone to the Bardly well for inspiration, with occasional successes, both spectacular (“Kiss Me, Kate”) and modest (“Desperate Measures”).

Now along comes “Romeo and Bernadette,” which lovers of Shakespeare, musical theater and the blending of both, are urged to visit in the Mezzanine Theatre at A. R. T. at West 53rd and Tenth. Loosely (but recognizably) inspired by the tale of the star-crossed lovers, the play is a compact, two-hour treat from curtain to curtain.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

A Star Turn by Laura Linney: “My Name Is Lucy Barton”

It seems that one-actor stage presentations have increased in number over the past decade or so. And as critical attention to them has grown with that proliferation, the quality level has risen as well. Long recognized as a theatrical form but marginalized before even multi-cast plays clocked in at ninety minutes, the solo show is now a staple not only of off-Broadway, but on the Main Stem too. Both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle include a “Solo Show” award category (Tony does not), lumping On- and Off-Broadway for consideration. (I am a DD/OCC voter.)  Serious solo-show pioneers include Spalding Gray and Anna Deavere Smith, while such as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Colin Quinn have adapted their comedic personas to the form. In 2004, Doug Wright’s solo play “I Am My Own Wife” won not only the Best Play and Actor (Jefferson May) Tony Awards, but the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well.

Some solo shows are themed standup; some channel multiple characters to make a social point. None has been more complete a play than Rona Munro’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling 2016 novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” not least because its one actor is the sublime Laura Linney. Having opened in London’s West End in 2018 to great acclaim, Ms. Linney and “Lucy Barton” are now ensconced at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

The sublime Laura Linney [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Married Thirty-five Years and Counting (or maybe not): “Bone on Bone”Premiere

Many a fine play is waylaid by shoddy acting and/or directing. (Recall your last misbegotten Shakespeare.) Conversely, a lesser theater piece can be enhanced by superior efforts in those categories. Such is the case with Marylou Dipietro’s “Bone on Bone,” enjoying a well-acted world premiere production at New Jersey Repertory Company.

The word ‘lesser’ is used advisedly. “Bone on Bone” is not a bad play – or one beyond redemption. It is just…mild. One becomes invested in the two characters, whose situation is relatable, but whose indecisiveness becomes frustrating as they spar with one another without landing any telling blows before ending up in a bland rapprochement.

Manhattanites Jonathan (John Little), 60, and Linda (Wendy Peace), 59 but appearing younger (per the playwright), are in a complacently traditional 35-year marriage. He is a partner in a prestigious NYC law firm; she, a painter, apparently proficient, but hardly renowned.

Wendy Peace and John Little [Photos: Andrea Phox Photography]

Lest the title’s metaphorical connection to their tenuous marriage escapes us, this from Linda’s early speech, ostensibly about calcium deposits: “What’s the stuff between the joints? When it’s gone they call it bone on bone?” Later, in another context, she says “That’s the thing, you can’t make up for lost time.” And there you have the crux and message of Ms. Dipietro’s play.

Sublimated issues arise when Linda’s former mentor offers her a position heading up an artist-in-residence program at Rhode Island School of Design. Will she take the job? If yes, must she move to Providence? (“You can’t be an artist-in-residence if you’re not ‘in residence’.”) Will Jonathan leave his lucrative Big Apple practice to move with her? After all, he did once entertain the notion of opening a hardware store. That the play holds our interest as they dance around these questions for eighty minutes is a comment on audience voyeurism. We wait for an emotional eruption but end up settling for a Hallmark resolution. (As a side note, the idea that a couple might split up after 35 years of marriage would have been unthinkable a generation or so ago. Today? Meh.)

Mr. Little and Ms. Peace

A third character, Linda’s job-offering advocate Ernest, who prefers Ernesto (finally, Ernie), spurs Jonathan’s passive-aggressive jealousy. Devoting less time and dialogue to the fellow’s expectorating-in-public habit and his nasal excretions would lend at least some justification for that concern. As it is, anyone whose sense of self is intact would pass on a pass by Ernie. (Thankfully, he does not appear).

Neither Linda nor Jonathan offers or invites intimacy, save for a couple of mild gestures, which, while touching, are tentative. This has not been a passionate marriage. (A tossed-off exchange about why they are childless comes and goes in a blink and she has never even seen him blow his nose in 35 years.) Given the couple’s opposing personalities and the playwright’s tight rein on them (civility reigns), the actors’ mining the piece for emotional nuance is admirable.

Mr. Little, lawyerly in appearance and demeanor, conveys Jonathan’s vexation with his reserve, which he cannot shake, despite both desire and motivation. It makes him a rather sad character, both to himself and to us, a quality (if such it be) that the actor reveals beneath a dignified veneer.

Linda is pretty much the opposite. Her potential joie de vivre, tamped down over the years, reveals itself just under the surface of Ms. Peace’s multi-level performance. Left standing alone at the end of some scenes, she conveys the woman’s (many women’s?) frustration with her station through small but telling gestures and expressions (especially effective in the intimate venue).

M. Graham Smith’s direction is of a piece with the material, efficient if not warm. Set designer Jessica Parks employs multiple angles to expand the relatively small stage, and Patricia E. Doherty’s apt costume choices complement character and situation.

Plays that pose questions and leave them unanswered comprise a genre of their own. Such plays can inspire post-performance conversations that might go on for days. “Bone on Bone” aspires to that level, but a few remarks on the way home will likely do the trick.

Through February 9 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs. and Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 2pm. For tickets ($55):732-229-3166 or online at

Blog, Professional, Regional

Bye Bye Blackface/Send In The Clowns

Ken Ludwig’s 1980s farce “Lend Me a Tenor” revolves around two operatic tenors being mistaken for one another in costume and makeup for the same role. The play is funny…or not, depending on taste. I had always thought it so, until it dawned on me at a 2005 performance (foot-noted below) that two white guys in blackface for the title role of Verdi’s “Otello” being indistinguishable by other white characters because of blackface makeup and kinky wigs was an idea way past its sell-by date.

Fortuitously, playwright Ludwig has come to the same conclusion, pulling the rights to the original and re-issuing it with Canio replacing Othello, Canio being the clown in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” The new version is just as funny, as evidenced by the nifty production running through January 26 at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre in Elmsford, New York. Perhaps, with comic ‘takes’ more readable through clown whiteface than Moorish blackface, even more so.

The “Lend Me a Tenor” cast [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

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Blog, Professional, Regional