Boy Genius!

'The Seagull' and 'Tick, Tick...Boom!' examine the art of being an artist

So at dinner beforeheading off to Theatre de la Jeune Lune's production of The Seagull, my wife, who generally has a no-caffeine-after-1:00 p.m. policy, orders a cup of coffee and later accepts a refill. "I figure I'll need it for Chekhov," she says. Some years ago she was subjected to a staging of one of the Russian master's tragicomedies that overemphasized the work's tragic elements. The author's wit, his unpretentiousness, his spirited humanism had been bulldozed by gloom.

Of course, one doesn't want to give a work that's sympathetically--remarkably--attuned to human suffering an undue levity either. Director Dominique Serrand's interpretation finds an Aristotelian mean by literally and conceptually refusing to stand still, allowing the material to guide the players through a wild survey of moods. The actors move with careening optimism, then lollop and crawl in despair on the fading country estate of winsome geriatric Sorín (Charles Schuminski, characteristically weird and wonderful). The bucolic setting--sometimes blissful, sometimes oppressive--is suggested by 40 or 50 stripped birch trees and a rippling lake rendered by a gray curtain that's barely visible behind heavy wood doors.

Maybe someone fed it antacid? Jeune Lune's  Sarah Agnew tends to a grounded seagull
Michal Daniel
Maybe someone fed it antacid? Jeune Lune's Sarah Agnew tends to a grounded seagull

At the start of the story, our Hamletian hero Konstantín (Jason Lambert, somewhat reminiscent of a young Al Pacino) is a frenetic writer with idealistic visions of bringing "new forms" to literature. He tries to accomplish this in front of his family and friends through a symbolist play starring his effusive girlfriend Nína (Sarah Agnew). The overcooked experiment is interrupted, though, by the aspiring playwright's vain mother Arkádina, a famous actor played with vim by Barbara Berlowitz. Arkádina's lover Trigórin (Steven Epp), who eventually woos Nína, is also a celebrity, a jaded writer whom Konstantín greets with a mix of jealousy and contempt. When in Act 4 Konstantín has become a successful writer himself, he wears a suit Trigórin had left behind earlier. It's a costuming choice that simply telegraphs Konstantín's conflicted feelings toward Trigórin, as well as both writers' struggle with fame's muse-muting side effect.

Chekhov's muse is not always honored by Paul Schmidt's translation, acclaimed for its lucidity and faithfulness, but a bit prosaic compared to some of the competition (Eugene Bristow's rendering, for example, sings more, at least in print). But if some poetry is missing from the translation, the company reinserts it with elastic, soulful, sneakily comic performances.

 

In the late Jonathan Larson's autobiographical musical Tick, Tick...Boom!, the composer's alter ego (Christian Campbell) passionately describes his dream to bring "real" rock to Broadway. And I'm thinking, Real as in what? Meatloaf? Pat Benatar? Having endured many hours with the original cast recording while working at a Sam Goody, I passed on seeing Larson's phenomenally successful Rent. So perhaps I've missed the genius celebrated by Larson's Pulitzer Prize and cult of fans because it somehow can't be conveyed on record. Had I experienced someone really selling Larson's chutzpah and periodic wit, I might have surrendered to the dominantly clumsy lyrics, borrowed hooks, and Cheez Whiz anthems. So I tried to suppress my negative predisposition in approaching the touring production of Boom! at the Pantages Theatre, and walked away with two main impressions: (1) I still don't like Jonathan Larson; and (2) I had a totally okay time in spite of myself.

Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm near the eve of Rent's Broadway debut, wrote Tick, Tick...Boom! around the same time that he started raising the Rent (see, the corniness is infectious). Working from Larson's drafts, director Scott Schwartz and script consultant David Aubern (Proof) have doctored and expanded Boom! into a three-person show, making flesh the half-dozen or so characters in Larson's intended one-man show. Wilson Cruz and Nicole Ruth Snelson provide charming support, though Snelson's singing takes on a harsh timbre when she's really belting it out.

Set in 1990 New York, the show finds a nearly 30-year-old Jonathan struggling to make it as a musical-theater composer and suffering a pre-midlife crisis. Should he keep pursuing his artistic dreams or settle down with his girlfriend Susan? Should he get a real job like his smooth best friend Michael? Like many solo-show premises, the "write what you know" maxim is taken so literally, it's almost lazy. But the self-indulgence is more sweet than arrogant. In Campbell's earnest grip, Jonathan is irresistible, a dorky dreamer so lovable you almost forgive the mostly lousy songs.

Almost. There's some cleverness here amid the forgettable treacle, but it's telling that the most artfully composed number is the Stephen Sondheim parody/tribute, a great inside joke and the show's most striking (and borrowed) melody. And then there are the lyrics. When the chorus of the "inspirational" show-stopper "Louder Than Words" kicked in ("Cages or wings/Which do you prefer?/Ask the birds"), I figured it couldn't get any worse. And then came the "funky" breakdown version of the chorus. Okay, okay, I thought, I prefer the wings! May they take me to my car immediately!

 
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