For those put off by the more overtly obvious low comedy offerings that have become so common on New York stages recently, The Thing About Men could quite possibly be just what you've been waiting for. Yes, the new show at the Promenade Theatre is a serious musical comedy, aimed squarely at adults, and brimming with the wry sophistication of a show that knows it can succeed while taking the high road.
You'll find no puppets at this show. Nor will you find any of the winking at the audience, clever asides, or other forms of ironic detachment that place unnecessary barriers between shows and audiences. Of recent musical comedies, only Slut at the Fringe Festival embraced similar theatrical values, but The Thing About Men has little else in common with it, or many other shows; it thrives quite nicely on being its own creation - though it is based on the mid-1980s German film Männer.
Much of the book (by Joe DiPietro, also the show's lyricist) is highly farcical, packed with complicated plotting in telling the story of two-timing advertising executive Tom (Marc Kudisch) who leaves his wife Lucy (Leah Hocking) and becomes the roommate of the down-on-his-luck artist, Sebastian (Ron Bohmer), she's having an affair with. Tom's attempts to manage his two identities and drive a wedge between his wife and her lover open the doors to plenty of comic possibilities.
But while embracing the comedy as often as it can, it keeps a few other key points in focus: Relationships take constant work and trust to hold together, youth and irresponsibility can't continue on forever, and no one can have everything they want whenever they want it. While The Thing About Men is often quite funny (usually when at its most complicated), it's the emotional sweep of the show's romance and the questions it raises, more than the jokes, that stick with you. How much are any of us willing to give up, or take on, for those we love?
Yet the show never preaches or gets weighed down, thanks in no small part to the crack five-person ensemble, bursting with musical and comedic gifts. Kudisch's heavyweight voice and bravado make him a natural for his uptight, self-assured role. He and the more youthful masculine Bohmer play well off of each other, and give the songs stronger renditions than most could hope for. Hocking, the "straight woman" of the show, is left mostly in the middle while events move around her, though she projects enough sexy vulnerability to suggest why two men are fighting over her. Daniel Reichard and Jennifer Simard round out the cast, playing a Greek-style chorus that comments on the action and a number of broadly specified ensemble roles that suggest they're two of the finest young comic actors on the New York musical stage.
Mark Clements's direction is swift and thoughtful, emphasizing the whimsical undercurrents of the story. Hoover's fine unit set incorporates a sharp set of projections from Elaine J. McCarthy, which, with Ken Billington's lights, lithely captures a wealth of locations and emotions on the Promenade Stage. Gregory Gale's costumes are ideally contemporary, whether shabby or chic, with just a dash of fairy tale spice (primarily for Reichard and Simard).
Topping it all off, and tying it all together, is the score. DiPietro and composer Jimmy Roberts have provided songs that veer between the metropolitan and suburban sounds of today; with Bruce Coughlin's fine orchestrations, the songs often sound modern with a twist, a mixture of Side Show and Merrily We Roll Along. Kudisch and Bohmer generally get the best music, whether in a moving duet about their burgeoning friendship, or a hilarious production number in an exclusive French restaurant (Simard and Reichard also figuring in prominently). The first act finale, "Downtown Bohemian Slum," in which all the story's pieces finally begin to come together, is musically and dramatically invigorating and exciting.
Only a few flaws mar the proceedings - the show's madcap pace flags during some scene breaks, and the script's references to Tom and Lucy's children fall flat; it's clear from the show's first scenes that they have no real room in their life for children, making their exclusion a sad reminder of parents who, too often, just have better things to do. This is one bit of reality the show might do better without.
Otherwise, The Thing About Men is robust enough musically, comedically, and dramatically to take the sting out of the late summer malaise, and keep you grinning straight into the fall. It's a cheerful but sobering reminder not only of life, love, and friendship but what can - and must - be done to maintain them and keep them all in top working order.
The Thing About Men