How many scenic elements are more theatrical than doors? They can be formidable barriers, passageways to possibility, demonically threatening, or even just ordinary doors. Some plays use them as another character; the Maltby and Shire revue Closer Than Ever saw them as a vital thematic device. Regardless, doors - however important - are seldom the most important things in any show.
But with Rooms, at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, that's just not the case. The sizable white door that director Scott Schwartz has placed on the stage of the 45th Street Theatre is so immediately striking, and proves so central to Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon's story, you half expect it to receive the final bow when curtain calls come around.
Built on castors, the door is pushed, pulled, and rotated by its two human costars, Jeremy Kushnier and Natascia Diaz, with a frequency that makes them more resemble a duo of interior decortors than the aspiring rock musicians they're supposed to be. But all this fuss does have a point: Schwartz expertly uses that door to define playing spaces and conflict. She's nervous about approaching him, so the first conversation they share is held through a closed door; at another point, when they've finished their first date, a spin of the door frame leads us from inside with one to outside with the other.
Schwartz so effectively realizes a hundred different possibilities for the show's sole set piece that it seems a shame to have his theatrical ballet spoiled by a book and score that aren't as animated. But the story of Scottish couple Ian and Monica, whose relationship is charted against the English punk music movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is so formulaic that its only daring element is the flashback to the earliest days of their relationship that forms the central part of the narrative.
You can predict the story's arc without much effort: They meet as cute as an alcoholic Catholic composer and a stuffy Jewish lyricist can without falling instantly in love, but realize their musical talents mesh well and take on Glasgow and London before setting their sights on New York musical theatre stardom. The only problem is that she can't sit still, and he never wants to leave whatever room he's in, so it seems that their love is ultimately doomed. (Of course, as all of this is in flashback, the eventual outcome is never seriously in doubt.)
Goodman's score, for which Gordon also contributed lyrics, is a step up from his previous work adapting Bright Lights, Big City; that show's reliance on cheap jokes, endless recitative, and oversetting of even the most minor events and emotions is not in evidence in Rooms. The wailing diegetic punk songs and searing power ballads here come naturally and believably to these characters, and sound great (if overly loud) as played by Roger Butterley's onstage rock band.
In terms of content, the score takes few chances, and doesn't always make sense when it does. The only standout number is an hilarious bat mitzvah serenade that works in too many secrets the subject's mother would prefer weren't revealed, but its not particularly believable that Diaz's sensible Monica would ever dare sing it. Emotional content in most of the other songs is of the anonymous, pop-album variety that might satisfy rock-music lovers, but won't do much for fans of musical theatre as a dramatic form.
The performances, while polished, don't plumb much deeper; the characters' inner struggles are only suggested. Diaz is more interesting than usual here, and her voice is better suited to this gratingly rangy music than to the more traditional scores she's found herself singing of late; she's not, however, the effusively jittery and caffeinated Monica the show describes. Kushnier is likeable enough, and he sings with an appealing sincerity, but he pushes Ian's homebody qualities beyond introversion and into blandness, making it tough to understand what Monica sees in him.
Should that matter in a show like this? Aren't Goodman and Gordon just more interested in bringing musical theatre to a rock concert than bringing a rock concert to a musical? The story they tell is satisfying enough as a 75-minute diversion, but feels only half-finished, as if Goodman and Gordon decided that stressing the restorative powers of rock and the profound resilience of abandoned love are enough for a full evening. From the audience, that's not at all certain.
Still, you have to love the door, the first and last thing we see in the show, and the only obvious capitulation to theatrical concerns. But as much as its openings, closings, and travels to and fro may ingratiate it to us, of far greater concern is the invisible door between the performers and the audience that should allow access to emotional connection, but is instead tightly shut.
New York Musical Theatre Festival