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Romantic Poetry

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Emily Swallow and Ivan Hernandez
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What happens to love after doubt creeps into it? An excellent question, and one of the more notable ones addressed in Romantic Poetry at Manhattan Theatre Club. But a better one is: What happened to John Patrick Shanley after Doubt crept out of him?

First Defiance savagely mocked the previous work's success by recasting it in hollower, more pedestrian terms. Now this largely hopeless musical has sputtered open to further encourage us to reevaluate whether the taut Doubt was really as good as it seemed at the time, or whether it was an engrossing late-career fluke. Romantic Poetry - which Shanley also directed - is really that bad.

Or, at least, most of it is. Approximately one third is mildly entertaining, at that primarily because of Henry Krieger. The composer of Dreamgirls and Side Show may occasionally echo those titles with his music here, which sometimes stumbles as it moves between piano-lounge cheese and contemporary-epic expansiveness, but he brings a quaint tunefulness to this bedchamber opera. Whether delivering vague Muzakal pleasure or more specific melodic chills, he caresses the many different facets of modern love music.

Shanley, however, is either not versed or not experienced enough in the rigors of musical storytelling to match Krieger step for narrative step. His story is part a quasi-Fantasticks before-and-after tale, which begins immediately following the nuptials of Fred (Ivan Hernandez) and Connie (Emily Swallow), and part operatic costume legend. Unsurprisingly, these two acquired tastes seldom taste great together.

For the first part of the first act, you almost think Shanley might pull this off. There's a fresh cleverness about how he approaches the age-old idea of the bride and groom truly getting to know each other only after walking down the aisle: Fred discovers in the honeymoon suite that Connie is actually from Woodmere, one of the Five Towns that Fred's Aunt Imogene prophesied would produce the girl who would destroy Fred's life. But that couldn't possibly happen, could it? And if does, can't true soul mates always conquer fate?

Shanley delays addressing such questions by introducing Red (Jeb Brown) and Carl (Mark Linn-Baker), Connie's two ex-husbands who aren't quite ready to give her up. Primarily because they're both still married to her. Carl, you see, was just pretending to be a lawyer when he met Connie, and convinced her to leave Red for him. (Of course, Carl's subsequent divorce was also a ruse.) Yes, this is something of a problem.

Ivan Hernandez (on the far right) joined by Patina Renea Miller, Jerry Dixon, Swallow, Mark Linn-Baker, and Jeb Brown.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For the newlyweds as well as their show. While Swallow and Hernandez do not exactly burst with chemistry, they conjure a wary-eyed unease together that highlights the oil-and-water union into which Fred and Connie have unwittingly plunged. While Brown and Linn-Baker have proven likeable comics in other outings requiring put-upon Everymen, Shanley's jumbled interpretation gives them little more to play than rambunctious discontent and wacky forlornness. This reduces both actors into playing grating, wharf-rat clowns (Linn-Baker with a slight accountant spin).

The story never recovers from the detour through Red and Carl. It gets somewhat more traction from a second pair of lovers, Mary the overeager hotel assistant manager (Patina Renea Miller) and Frankie the irritable reception caterer (Jerry Dixon), who contrast Fred and Connie by starting off on the right foot and end up on the wrong one. Of all the performers, Miller and Dixon seem most in tune with their roles, the best matches for what they're supposed to say and sing, even if their characters are more of theatrical utility than of dramatic import.

But the fractured Long Island fantasy from the earlier scenes is abandoned altogether in the ceaselessly swampy Act II, which jumps ahead several years to see how the quartet supposedly works through their differences and starts down the road to a happy ending. Suffice it to say, no one's dreams of fulfillment, whether emotional or artistic (Fred longs to give up his cell phone dealership and write poetry for a living), turn out exactly as they plan. This transforms the initially unconventional love story into something itchingly run-of-the-mill.

The show's trouble, though, is less with its lack of insight than its deficit of tangible entertainment. The score's two good songs are sung by Connie in the first act: "I Have No Words," in which she pleads to Fred for understanding, and "What About Love?", in which she tries to cut through the mounting insanity by returning to the oldest of First Principles. These songs also elicit the most passion from music director Sam Davis, and his band playing August Eriksmoen's kitschy orchestrations; Devanand Janki's musical staging remains vividly uninspired throughout.

The rest is muck, the musical-theatre equivalent of David Korins's irredeemably tacky airport-cabaret set. If not for Frankie's "An Ordinary Man," a broad-reaching but undistinguished rumination on the cruelties of fate that Dixon approaches with the fervor of a Wagner aria, there wouldn't even be a single noteworthy vocal showpiece. Most of Shanley's clunky lyrics detail unnecessary concepts, ranging from the mock heat they show in "Rumba Woman" to the disjointed political plaint "No One Listens to the Poor" to the unjustifiably upward-thinking finale "Walking Up the Stairs"; by the time Connie warbles the opening words of her last solo, "There's a night club in my shoe / And I go there when I'm blue," you've already long overshot surprise.

If there's an upside to Romantic Poetry, it's that it will fortify New York relationships for decades to come: If a couple survives this, they can survive anything. In every other way, this is the kind of date play you might take an ex to on April Fool's Day. This show's pusillanimously prankish atmosphere, though, is rarely a laughing matter.

Romantic Poetry
Through December 28
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: MTC Stage 1 at City Center

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