There's little doubt that Robby Benson feels better for having written his new musical Open Heart. Whether audiences, for the most part, will be glad he wrote it is much harder to determine.
It would be easier if Benson's show, which is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through April 25, were either thoroughly brilliant or a total misfire. Rather, the show tends to alternate haphazardly between the intensely emotional and the dizzyingly imbecilic.
It starts well enough. Benson plays Jimmy, an actor, writer, director, and producer on the network family sitcom Open Hearts. But wearing too many hats has hurt his relationship with his wife; this comes to a head on his wedding anniversary, when he chooses to stay at work rather than celebrate with her. He has little time to do either, however, as he soon suffers a serious heart attack.
Yes, the setup is standard fare, not unlike an episode Jimmy might have written for Open Hearts: a man on the brink of death sees his life flash before his eyes, and examines how he sets his priorities and how he could focus on what's really important. For Jimmy, much of that journey is presented through the television lens, with Michael Brown's set a soundstage (complete with camera cranes and TV monitors), and Jimmy's confrontations with the highs and lows of his life played out both live and on TV, with the help of those same cameras and monitors. (Batwin & Robin Productions did the excellent media design.)
At least, in crafting the show, Benson hasn't lost sight of the material's theatricality. He keeps the audience involved and engaged in Jimmy's experiences, whether he sees elements of his life represented as a British game show, a boxing match, or a cheesy romantic musical number.
But Open Heart's quality is wildly uneven, with Benson's good intentions frequently obscured through weak writing. True, Matt Williams did not exert a firm enough directorial hand - much of the production (the set, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, and Ken Billington's lights excepted) borders on the amateurish, but Benson the librettist and composer must take responsibility for, among other problematic moments, an audience sing-along with the lyrics "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you and you and yours" and a lengthy scene in which Jimmy's early sexual frustrations are represented by having another actor play his over-excited penis.
Open Heart is at its least earnest and least effective during these moments; the really low comedy feels extraneous in a work that seems to strive for a much greater emotional importance. It's much better when focusing on Jimmy, Jayne, and their family (one daughter is 20, another son died at a very early age); Benson's handling of these subjects, obviously closer to his heart, ring with real truth often lacking elsewhere.
This is not surprising; Jayne is played by Karla DeVito, Benson's real-life wife. The role fits her perfectly; while Benson wrote it for her, her unique comedic and musical gifts make the performance almost a tour de force. (She plays a number of other characters, including Ethel Merman and a disturbed Japanese nurse, and they're portrayed just as masterfully.) But as Jayne DeVito gives one of the season's best musical performances, singing with unadulterated feeling, whether in a light soprano or a full-on belt, and acting in even the silliest of moments with utter conviction. Benson brings out the best in her, and she in him; it's no exaggeration to say her performance alone makes Open Heart a must-see.
Stan Brown, the show's third cast member, plays a variety of roles in the show, including Jimmy's guide down memory lane and even Death himself. He sings very well, and is by turns threatening and hilarious, but as his roles aren't written with quite the same care or love as DeVito's, he never reaches the next level she does.
As for Benson, his singing voice is weaker and, as his character primarily watches life happen around him, he doesn't have the best acting opportunities. His performance feels very half-formed, much like most of the show's writing. The book, while often funny, is always very well-meaning but predictable, and the score boasts only two notable musical highlights, both gorgeous and searing numbers for DeVito ("Paint a Picture" and "Let it Come"). The other tunes, while pleasant enough, are mostly generic and forgettable.
It should be noted that, while Jimmy and Benson share some similarities, the story of Open Heart is original and not autobiographical. It's a shame that Benson could successfully tap into little more than his all-consuming love for DeVito - that might have made Open Heart the emotional, cathartic journey for us that it clearly is for him. But if DeVito provides the most solid reason to see the show, that proves reason enough.