Ted Shen’s new musical, A Second Chance, which just opened at The Public Theater, falls into just this trap. It has a lot of things going for it: the sumptuous setting of present-day New York, evocative music that translates the city’s myriad pleasures into a deeply personal language for two, a stark but delicate staging by Jonathan Butterell that escorts you into a world and relationship of magic, and two actors playing the central couple with likability and chemistry that can’t be beat (these would be real-life married couple Brian and Diane Sutherland). What it does not have is a specific reason for singing.
Shen’s investigation is of a middle-aged man and woman, Dan and Jenna, who meet at a party and spend the next seven months or so discovering whether they can and/or should be together. Dan is still picking up the pieces after the death of his wife of 25 years; Jenna is herself divorced, and not at all good with the “long-term” thing — the odds would seem to be stacked against them from the beginning. And as they progress through various chance meetings, casual dates, formal dates, and eventually nights together and mornings after, it often doesn’t look as though they’ll be able to escape themselves long enough to find each other.
Almost every scene finds one, the other, or more frequently both musing on the troubles they’re facing, why they shouldn’t sleep together or get married, or why they should, why their union will probably not work out, and who’s to blame on the (many) occasions it appears as though it indeed won’t. But because there’s no outside community — of family, of friends, or even of strangers — to provide context, it all feels perilously small and uncomfortably personal, the kind of thing more naturally at home on a counselor’s couch than on the musical stage. (Two scenes in which Jenna discusses Dan with her own therapist reinforce this notion.)
There’s no lack of music, to be sure; in fact, 23 songs spread out over only about 100 minutes of stage time usually feels like too many. Shen’s melodic language is distinctive and attractive, with an upscale jazzy-nightclubby flair that’s just right for these higher-minded folks (he’s a banker, she manages a medical research lab), and it’s been handsomely orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin with an alluring woodwind emphasis. But there’s a pulled-back sameness about every number that may reinforce Dan and Jenna’s tentative attitudes but is unengaging at best and boring at worst.
Though Shen’s book is a lean exploration of Dan and Jenna’s psychologies, his lyrics fail to match its utility. The curtain-raiser promises Sondheim pretensions (“Dreams / Even when we come to doubt them / Could we ever live without them?”), but you usually get either awkwardly musicalized conversations (about Mad Men: “What about Pete Campbell? / He’s the one we love to hate, but he tries to do the right thing / Most of the time”), inelegant spins on traditional forms (“Damaged Goods / All you’ll find in me is / Damaged goods / What I’m resigned to be is someone who’s stuck in his past, / Trying to go nowhere fast”), or unnecessary one-dimensional introspection (“These are the ghosts that taunt me, / telling me I don’t belong / I thought with time they’d fade away, / But now I see I was wrong”).
It can’t be easy to establish or maintain real mood under those conditions, but Butterell largely manages it, keeping his scenes on the same laid-back level as the writing so at least they feel of a piece. He also makes top-notch use of a spare modern studio set (by Robert Brill) and luscious black-and-white projections of the city (Rocco DiSanti) that convey an atmosphere Shen’s writing cannot quite manage. The impression is one of paging through a family’s old photo album, and it’s just right.
The evening’s other saving grace is the Sutherland duo. If for perhaps obvious reasons, they perform beautifully together, and amplify what intricacies are to be found in the writing. Brian seems a bit stiff, though that befits Dan’s heavily reluctant nature, and Diane displays an especially easygoing grace that energizes Jenna. Even so, both do everything they can to stretch the confines within which they’re working, and they come close to succeeding — at the very least, they ensure that we see these two as complex, worthwhile people facing a challenging situation.
Their most powerful scene comes late in the show, when the theoretically straightforward process of discarding two items acquires an immense emotional significance that you can’t — and don’t want to — avoid. Dan and Jenna are all too aware of the imposing meaning the action implies, and it mattering so much to them makes it every bit as vital to us. It’s telling, though, that the moment is entirely silent. Like the rest of A Second Chance, it doesn’t need a song to touch you. Maybe that makes for a good minute in the theater, but why must this show — or any — masquerade as a musical to get it?
A Second Chance