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Fly By Night

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Adam Chaler-Berat and Patti Murin
Photo by Joan Marcus

Charm, properly applied, can lighten the gloomiest evening. This is what Adam Chanler-Berat and Patti Murin teach with such nimble finesse in Fly By Night, the musical by Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly, and Michael Mitnick that just opened at Playwrights Horizons. Playing two young people in 1960s New York who believe they're capable of shaping the world around them into something more pleasant and artistic than what actually exists, Chanler-Berat and Murin are real, warm, and relatable in a show that, all too often, is as fake and unforgiving as the one their characters are rebelling against.

Not that either Harold (Chanler-Berat) or Daphne (Murin) would see it that way, of course. Harold is a young sandwich-maker by trade who adopts an avocation as a musician when he discovers his mother's guitar (which she never played) after her death. Daphne, on the other hand, is a talented singer-actress who moves to New York from Hill City, South Dakota, with her sister Miriam and discovers that making it big on Broadway isn't quite as easy as she thought.

Foiled and failed aspirations of glory and achievement aren't what their joint story is about. That's a part of it, sure, and we witness Harold's attempts at songwriting when he can only play a single chord and a handful of Daphne's disastrous auditions before she lands a dream job in a play that's being written explicitly for her. What matters more is how they find each other and overcome the obstacles they face, which can be as mundane as Harold's irritable sandwich-shop boss, Crabble (Michael McCormick), or as Earth-shaking as Harold falling for Miriam (Allison Case), after she helps him take his ever-aborning song to the next level.

Maybe these are ordinary people with pedestrian problems, but Chanler-Berat and Murin channel their personalities into their portrayals enough to make them noteworthy. The natural, aw-shucks shyness that served Chanler-Berat so well as the teenage boyfriend in Next to Normal is put to even better use here: It creates a shell around him that Harold's being in love can believably crack, and the excitement and ability that grow in Harold as time passes are palpable. And Murin slowly and subtly defuses Daphne's preternaturally sunny exterior to make her a woman who's more complicated and forward-thinking than when we meet her.

Peter Friedman, Patti Murin, Adam Chanler-Berat, Henry Stram, Michael McCormick and Bryce Ryness.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Better still is the performers' symbiotic chemistry, which simmers from their characters' initial encounter in Daphne's survival-job clothing store through their first real duet ("More Than Just a Friend") to their final union beneath an endless sky signifying the infinite, cyclical nature of life. They begin as kids and end as full-fledged adults, not sacrificing any likability along the way, but chipping away at the childlike excesses of their existence until all they have left to be is real for each other.

Rosenstock (who conceived the show), Connolly, Mitnick, and director Carolyn Cantor could learn something from this. Outside of Chanler-Berat and Murin, there's an utter dearth of reality about Fly By Night that nonetheless renders the leads' work all but meaningless. Unable to decide whether they want a small, simple, honest musical comedy about two people finding love or an epic, dramatic spin on man's relationship to the infinite, the writers have tried to have it both ways and ended up with nothing that works.

A sticky, standard-issue quirkiness, as written and acted, is the default setting for all but Harold and Daphne. Case's Miriam is robotic in her waitress-induced perkiness and mild temper tantrums alike. Friedman falls flat as a man who mourns his dead wife by either holding his hand over his heart or walking around with a record player loaded with a recording of her favorite opera (La Traviata). McCormick's bluster is set on 11 as a frustrated deli owner who's never outgrown his days as an air force air traffic controller. And Bryce Ryness is unbearable playing the rich playboy playwright who plans to win Daphne by writing a play for her and making her rehearse it privately for more than ten months.

Henry Stram does his enervated best as the central figure of the other style, a narrator who assumes multiple small parts and escorts back, forth, and back again across the story as it zig-zags nonsensically through time. Pseudo-Brechtian in his style, the Narrator also tells us what people are doing (even when we can see them) and what they're thinking (even when it's obvious), but never justifies his presence onstage outside of calling attention to the threads that link each other together and ultimately knot up on November 9, 1965—with the occurrence of the great northeast blackout.

It's an intriguing idea, especially as executed here with a focus on the stars that are too often unseeable above the always-lit city. (Lighting designer Jeff Croiter does outstanding work bringing the skyscape to life.) But as symbols of where we are and where we're going—Daphne and Miriam's father explained how all life is created from the elements of dead stars—they're overused, underwhelming, and unable to compensate for the shellacked staging (on David Korins's blandly utilitarian unit set) and acting, an unremarkable score with too-cutesy melodies and too-simple lyrics that can't resolve Big Concepts with Small Potatoes inclinations, and the inescapable sense that not enough people involved took this seriously.

But because Chanler-Berat and Murin do, this show is not completely without spunk or soul. Both are able to rise above their material (Chanler-Berat's first number is about, no kidding, turtles) to reveal genuine people and recognizable emotions beneath the plastic. They're so good, in fact, that you have no choice but to care about them, even as the show surrounding them makes caring about anything else impossible. Of the many problems with Fly By Night, the biggest is that Chanler-Berat and Murin's Herculean work simply isn't enough to save it from the ground-bound mediocrity it so fervently advises us to avoid.

Fly By Night
Through June 29
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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