One would think that the story of an adolescent coming of age in a bordello would have to be at least interesting, and possibly sexy or erotic. In the case of Wilder, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, one would be very, very wrong.
This is one of those shows that thinks it's flying to the stars while, in reality, it's mired in the muck. It's laced with writing, in script and score, that its authors no doubt thought was poetic and even profound. It's given such an unadorned staging (by Lisa Portes) that its creative team no doubt thought Wilder was capable of speaking entirely for itself. Its authors - Erin Cressida Wilson, Jack Herrick, and Mike Craver - could not have been more mistaken; Wilder spends its full 80-minute running time using a lot of fancy words to say nothing, and featuring a fair amount of action during which nothing of consequence is accomplished.
Essentially, the show is concerned with an older man (John Cullum) who returns to the whorehouse where he first learned about life during a difficult winter in the depths of the Great Depression. As a young boy (played by Jeremiah Miller), he saw his mother (Lacey Kohl) and father (Cullum again) fight, separate, and send him to live in the attic of a nearby whorehouse while his father went to jail and his mother worked as a "maid." (The writers intended her real vocation to be a tremendous surprise; it's not, but it still won't be revealed here.) While living in the whorehouse, Wilder becomes enamored of one of the "working girls," Melora Mayfield (played by Kohl of course), and is determined to win her heart (and body) any way he can.
The initial problem is already apparent: There's not a single fresh idea in any of this. Fine, familiar subject matter can still be made interesting if it's handled well. In Wilder it's not; nothing is given the proper dramatic focus - comic moments are played seriously and serious moments are laughed away. Wilder discovering masturbation when attracted to the figure of an ice skater in a snow globe, which could be a tense, vital scene, is made the show's most embarrassing when Kohl dances onstage in an overblown pink ice-skating dress (designed by G. W. Mercier) to simulate sex with Wilder. (That Wilder himself is wearing one of Melora's dresses at the time is of only secondary importance.)
Then there's the score, built upon the inescapable country rhythms inherent in the show's setting, Denver, Colorado. It's well played by Herrick and Craver, but it's highly ineffectual, with the songs all constructed in a relevant-to-the-action-but-not-really kind of way that seems more interested in establishing atmosphere than plot or character. After all, it's difficult to dig deep into characters' hearts and minds with lyrics like "blow out the candle and a fire will start" and my personal favorite, "Loneliness is automatic / When you live in an attic."
So the performers have their work cut out for them. Cullum's role is mainly reactionary and expository, so he never has a chance to really look bad (or, by extension, good), while Kohl gets more opportunities to display her talents but is relegated to doing and saying generally embarrassing things (one of her lines: "I come from out of the four corners of your heart"). Miller has the right style and voice for the younger Wilder, but he no more looks 12-14 years old onstage than Cullum does.
All things considered, the performers, Portes, and designers (Mercier's attic set is the best thing about the show, and Jane Cox's lighting is fine) do pretty well given what they have to work with, but it can't make Wilder enjoyable. Rather, audience members may find themselves relating to one of the climactic lines from a love scene in which Wilder and Melora communicate through a vent with Morse code learned from a Boy Scout's handbook: Dot-dot-dot/dash-dash-dash/dot-dot-dot.