Strained relations between men and women have tilted at the cores of countless musicals since the form's inception. And why not? It is, after all, the most fundamental conflict of both theatre and humanity itself. So it's not surprising that the latest installment of the solo mini-musicals series Inner Voices, which just opened at the 30th Street Theater, soars its highest when it acknowledges and deals with this most directly. What's more unexpected is just how unconventional these relationships can be and still piercingly, poignantly sing.
Not that convention has necessarily been a hallmark of Inner Voices. Of the five musicals it's introduced over two previous collections (in 2008 and 2010), the closest we've seen to a "traditional" rendering of romance was the first entry in the first evening, Michael John LaChiusa and Ellen Fitzhugh's "Tres Niñas," and even that was a far cry from the likes of Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls. The women who've been doing the singing until now have had more on their minds — in some cases, a lot more — and that's not left them much occasion to think lovey-dovey thoughts. That pattern continues here, but in the second and third of the three musicals presented, you won't feel you're missing much.
The more socially powerful of the two is "Farhad." With book and lyrics by Nilo Cruz (who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Anna in the Tropics) and music by Jim Bauer (the mastermind of the Dada-inspired musical The Blue Flower), it punctures the society of Afghanistan by looking at how the young title character copes with questions of masculinity in that ruthlessly male-dominated culture.
Farhad, who takes particularly pride in recognizing and speaking the 99 names of God, is particularly perplexed by the matters of friends and girls, and the toxic interplay that often exists between those groups for Muslim children. There's a strong undercurrent of longing for equality between the genders (a verboten idea there, to be sure), and in finding the balance between what the outside world demands and what the heart beseeches. And these are issues made even more profound and urgent by the fact that Farhad is a girl who for most of her life has been dressing like a boy.
As performed with steely resolve and an iron-clad belt by Arielle Jacob, Farhad is a mess of contradictions and confusions that give way naturally to song. Bauer's tunes, which depend on a guitar and an oud for authenticity of sound, capture both the wonder and the malice that the girl faces. Cruz's writing is stark, pointed, and unsentimental, ignoring neither her devotion to nor her challenging of the dogmas surrounding her, something that has given director Saheem Ali more ways to highlight the harsh realities at the center of the work. "Farhad" is never quite as moving as it seems to want to be, but it's a fascinating and often engrossing view of the impact the West has not had on every corner of the Earth.
More universal and more affecting is "Arlington," which composer Polly Pen has written with librettist-lyricist Victor Lodato. In it, American housewife Sara Jane (Alexandra Silber) spends her days distracting herself: with talk of the weather, remembering dreams, and musing on the nature of singing and its impact on the psyche. We soon learn that she's doing all this because her husband, Jerry, has gone off to war, and there's little for her to do but wait for his return. (The year of the action is never specified, but Sara Jane's lack of career and presumptuously prim flowered dress suggest it's the early 1940s.)
Yet despite the general simplicity of this plot, Pen and Lodato have infused it with an astonishing amount of tension. As the weeks and months tick past, Sara Jane becomes increasingly edgier, more despondent, and even drunker (she begins reluctantly sipping on the dregs of her mother's bottle of wine, but soon she's raiding the liquor cabinet for whiskey), and the music jaggedly follows her descent into near-madness. Skirting with themes alternating between the operatic, the popular, and even the recognizable folk (Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" plays a crucial role), it shows in richly melodic form the extent to which specific events shape our outlooks on our lives and ourselves.
Silber is start-to-finish wonderful as Sara Jane, warm and ingratiating but clearly private — the first clue that all is not well with this woman is that she's admitting us to her darkest thoughts in the first place. But Silber constantly modulates her personality, letting all masks of good feelings fall away to reveal the anguish threatening to eat Sara Jane alive. This intricate acting matched with, as far as I could tell, flawless legit singing gives Transport Group head Jack Cummings III a rich palette from which to draw, and he's staged the show with a captivating simplicity that puts the focus exactly where it should be: on her. Thrust into Sara Jane's living room as a confidante, you know there's nothing you can do to help, but she's so real and so visibly fraught with pain that you'll spend every minute with her wanting to find a way.
Unfortunately, the third show, longest and least but presented first, is the wrong kind of departure from the theme. "Borrowed Dust" stars Hunter Foster as a man named George, who's coping with the death of his sickly brother, Gabe, as a result of a Colorado hiking accident. Having brought Gabe's backpack with him back to New York, George reflects on the time they spent together, how he'll say goodbye, and how he'll manage to live without him.
Telling any story in 40 minutes in this format is difficult, but telling no story in that same amount of time is even harder — and harder to watch. Yet that's the case here: Joseph Thalken's music is characterless, angular for angularity's sake but identifying neither George nor Gabe as people worth knowing, and Martin Moran's book and lyrics are at once bloodily introspective and flamboyantly shallow, pinpointing nothing new in the classic grief spiral. ("Borrowed Dust" would benefit from the same twists of honest shock Moran was able to impersonate into his own acclaimed one-man show about his rocky upbringing, The Tricky Part.)
Hunter Foster plays George well, with an affable kind of grief that hints at plenty of tears being choked back behind his smile, and he's always apparently fighting an anger at not getting to know Gabe better. That's helpful, but it's still not enough. Foster and director Jonathan Butterell lose the battle against gravity to keep this stultifying, uncentered piece dynamic. Because you never get to know either of the two men well enough, it comes across as more navel-gazing than elegiac and heartfelt.
There's no reason a man struggling with finding his feelings can't be the sole figure in a musical like this. But the women in this Inner Voices who won't easily reveal their feelings are far more compelling than the man who suffers from, and unlike them succumbs to, the same malady.