The Midtown International Theatre Festival
You know a musical is floundering when its most potent moment is completely silent. In Connect-Disconnect, a busy signal of a musical double header at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the only scene that resounds with reality occurs at the start of the second act when a man named Barry and a woman named May sit at opposite ends of a stage-spanning conference table. Looking out at us rather than each other, unable to summon speech for an immeasurably long time and their faces drawn with despondence, they convey a loss, a pain, and a humanity that no other words or notes in this show can match.
It turns out that this New York couple has come together for divorce arbitration. (Yes, this is the “Disconnect” of the title.) The reason they’re separating is ostensibly adultery, but the real impetus is... too ridiculous to discuss here, frankly. Not because the problem itself is laughable, but because it doesn’t give way easily to a life-changing plot point without bringing unintended humorous baggage along for the ride. That the characters themselves treat it with the dread seriousness of victims of a carpet bombing instead of acknowledging and thus controlling its crippling absurdity, makes it all the funnier and more inappropriate.
In watching a story about a marriage falling apart, you should be fighting back tears, not peals of laughter. But that’s the way it goes in this show, which originated in Sweden and, despite Ola Hörling’s original book and lyrics being translated and adapted into English by Owen Robertson, often still feels as if it takes place there. Robertson’s limp lyrics, which are repetitive, minimally invasive, and leave no feeling or rhyming unstrained, don’t communicate the tragedy of the dissolution of Barry and May’s union in the second act, or the difficulty of a completely different English couple forming such bonds in the first. Jan-Erik Sääf’s music is tinklingly pleasant in the present, but utterly unmemorable.
It’s the conceit of the show, which Rick Jacobs has passably directed, that men and women are all basically the same and tend to repeat the same mistakes. Fishmonger Peter and policewoman Karen, who spend the first act courting over the Internet and in person on what initially seems like a disastrous blind date, are presented as the epitome of poor boyfriend and girlfriend material, the disingenuous folks so desperate for contact they’ll say and do anything to get it and worry about the consequences later. If it works out for them, apparently in a big way, it’s still clear that the writers see them as merely a stepping stone to Barry-and-May-style trouble further down the line.
Perhaps in Sweden this is all quite daring. In America, it’s rather less so. Rodgers and Hammerstein expertly wove the light, the dark, and the celestial into Carousel 64 years ago, providing a musical-theatre baseline for charting relationship function and dysfunction that’s not easily matched. The first act’s trite book and lyrics, which emphasize the couple’s fading youth and burgeoning self-concern with songs that cater to impossible ideals (“Imagine Someone,” “Give Me a Real Man,” “Give Me a Real Girl”), are pre-schematic musical comedy; Act II focuses so on the couple’s lack of chemistry that they don’t seem to even be in the same show until the temporarily haunting finale, an it-should-have-been-you number called “If Anyone.”
Both couples are played by Derek Keeling (a Danny Zuko finalist on NBC’s Grease-y reality show, You’re the One That I Want) and Heather Laws (from the John Doyle Company), who are fighting an impossible battle to keep themselves and their characters honest. Acting-wise, Keeling has one good moment, his kamikaze introductory phone call as Peter, and Laws performs an intriguing slow-motion shatter across the whole of Act II; both, however, sound very silly in their unnecessarily broad English accents, and Keeling’s perilously thin high notes do nothing to help his late-show soul-searching songs.
The actors are, however, likable enough, even if they don’t make the logical leap of really getting us to like the characters, too. But who can blame them? The authors - whatever their native languages - haven't written Connect/Disconnect to be original enough for American audiences, who continually need new and compelling reasons to care about troubles that have long been done and overdone on the musical stage.