Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival
There’s no sadder play than one that thinks being a play isn’t good enough. Songs don’t automatically grant or reveal heightened emotions; carefully chosen words, paired with the right actors, can achieve every bit as much. When words realize their fullest potential, music can actually cheapen, rather than expand, the characters it’s applied to. This is what happens to Megan Gogerty’s Love Jerry, playing at the TBG Theater: Songs have made a potentially wonderful play a less-than-inspired musical.
Is it because pedophilia is a subject that doesn’t exactly sing? Partially. But though that’s the specific concern driving apart Jerry (Harris Doran), his brother Mike (JT Arbogast), and Mike’s wife Kate (Donna Lynne Champlin), the story is really about the boundaries of love: When is it okay to love and when, if ever, is it okay to hate?
Gogerty has chosen not to directly musicalize any individual aspect of this story, but instead isolates the songs, Spring Awakening style, as disconnected reflections on the outward events or inward feelings that just transpired. Director Hilary Adams even relegates the numbers to their own downstage world, usually requiring Doran, Arbogast, and Champlin to drag microphone stands into place beforehand, as if announcing that what you’re about to hear must be considered apart from the play itself. If the songs are so unwanted, why bother with them at all?
That neither Gogerty nor Adams answers this question becomes increasingly maddening as the show unfolds and reveals ever deeper and more gripping layers of detail. The story, as such, begins when Jerry takes in Kate, Mike, and their eight-year-old son Andy after Mike develops severe financial problems, and reaches critical mass when Kate and Mike discover that Jerry’s interest in Andy goes well beyond the avuncular. But Gogerty also extends events backward and forward, letting us see the decades-ago underpinnings of Jerry’s desires, and the scorched-earth aftermath everyone must survive.
The dialogue, like the structure, is superb, sometimes incisive enough to flay the skin and sometimes giddily funny, but inescapably real at every step along the crisis. The acting is the kind you dream for in any musical and in many plays, rich and smart even in the tiniest roles (Jonas Cohen, Annalyse McCoy, and Katrina Yaukey play a handful of small but crucial characters, and also double as the orchestra), but downright amazing in the leads.
Doran never condescends to or judges Jerry, but unlocks all the pent-up longing and simmering loneliness that’s made him who he is; he also refuses to settle for easy answers, guarding certain game-changing secrets (the true nature of Jerry’s sexuality chief among them) with a suffocating intensity. Champlin’s blend of sensitivity and blood-curdling rage is alternately heartbreaking and terrifying, a masterful depiction of a mother brought to the brink of insanity by the men she loves - her eyes speak volumes of poetry even when (or perhaps especially when) she’s avoiding looking directly at another person.
Arbogast is particularly remarkable, especially in creating the absences that define the story. The most notable is Andy, who never appears onstage but must believably be set apart from the father with whom he has so little in common (Andy is artistic, Mike anything but), though Mike and Jerry’s uncle Karl also features prominently into the action without ever being seen; Arbogast makes it seem like both are merely in the wings, waiting for their entrances. He finds an almost unbearable sadness in being forced to choose between his wife and his brother when the time comes, and he makes Mike’s pain - and hope - yours as well. If you think you know how you’d behave in a similar situation, Arbogast will have you reconsidering - if only briefly.
The songs are highly attractive, with a naked, guitar-heavy indie-pop feel about them, and it’s easy to imagine them being sung by a tangle-haired college student in a coffee shop; it perhaps goes without saying that Arbogast, Champlin, and Doran sing them expertly, too. But the songs are more intrusions than explorations, delaying you from learning all you want to about the imploding people who are singing them; that even makes them dangerous, poised to spoil the rhythm, goodwill, and uncompromising artistry that define the show in every other respect.
That’s the trouble: There’s so much vivid life already present, there’s nothing left to sing about. Gogerty is unquestionably a talent to watch; her gifts are the kind that will save up-and-coming theatre from itself. It seems as if all she doesn’t yet know is that sometimes songs aren’t needed to create a thoroughly musical, or even operatic, evening. As Love Jerry demonstrates, that’s a crucial final lesson for her to learn.
Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival