Most theatre companies are considered bold and edgy when they occasionally stray from the endless succession of Shakespeare and Ibsen revivals to venture into the untested waters of new works. How ironic it is that The SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston's company so known for "staging Boston premieres" that the phrase is part of their logo, has chosen to inaugurate their new home in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts (say that one five times fast!) by making the bold and edgy choice of a revival! Of course, Sondheim and Furth's Company certainly isn't seen as often as Hamlet, but the obvious question everyone is asking is ... why?
In the show's program booklet, director Paul Daigneault suggests the time is right for Company, both because the new theatre offers physical resources necessary for the show that were previously unavailable to the SpeakEasy, and because the definition of marriage is such a hot topic in Massachusetts these days. One can't argue with the former reason - this is certainly the largest production I've seen by the SpeakEasy, with a two-story set, a nine piece band, and an ensemble cast of fourteen, at times all on stage together. But does Company, which had its world premiere in Boston in 1970, really have anything to say about what constitutes a marriage in 2004?
Daigneault tries his best to say it does. Taking advantage of the minimal updating to the script and orchestrations from the 1995 Broadway and West End revivals of the show, Daigneault has chosen to set Company firmly in the present. Eric Levenson's set is a slick, modern structure of chrome and light, juxtaposing a sleek, modern sensibility with a decidedly retro bachelor pad feel. While the disco-style light-up floor panels may hark back to Company's groovy origins, the costumes, designed by Gail Astrid Buckley and ranging from the wives bedecked in current shopping mall chic to a Marta (Sara Chase) dressed like a Britney Spears acolyte, making it clear that this Company takes place now. The actors gamely try to pass off dialogue referring to themselves "getting soused" and being "hopelessly square" as current slang, and they almost succeed. But the mere portability of the show from the 1970s to today does not instantly make it relevant to the politics of today.
Company is often called the first "concept" musical, meaning that it was the first book musical without a narrative through line, blurring the distinction between revue and musical comedy. In practice, this means that the show is presented as a series of vignettes in which Bobby (Michael Mendiola) visits his married friends and goes on dates with three girlfriends of his own. The music sometimes functions as commentary on a scene (e.g., "The Little Things You Do Together" is sung in counterpoint to a scene about a couple dieting and practicing karate together) and sometimes as the main content of the scene (e.g., "Getting Married Today"). It's unclear whether the scenes take place in the order we're seeing them - for example, Paul (David Krinitt) takes part in "Have I Got A Girl For You," lamenting his married state several scenes before he actually gets married - or even if the scenes ever take place at all (the show is framed by a series of scenes taking place at Bobby's surprise 35th birthday party, which all seem to be the same moment played out in different variations).
Unfortunately, Company's structure is also its downfall. Without a strong take on the character of Bobby, he becomes a black hole - the large void around which everything else gravitates. And so it is with this production. Michael Mendiola doesn't so much act the part as he does react. He's at his best when he's playing off his compatriots and at a loss when he has his own material to deliver. His singing is considerably better than his dialogue, but by the time Bobby comes to the realization that the give and take of a marriage is part of "Being Alive," I found myself wondering why I care what he thinks.
Luckily, this production does much better for itself even without a strong central figure than one might expect, simply because of the strength of the ensemble. Instead of an exploring Bobby's commitment dilemma, this Company offers a glimpse into the diversity of successful, loving relationships that can fall under the category of marriage. Bobby's presence is almost unnecessary, and as a result, rather than making the statement that marriage relationships are a necessary part of "Being Alive," Daigneault makes the statement that no two marriages will look the same once you look closely enough, but even those that aren't completely satisfying for the partners have a lot to recommend them.
And while this Company may not be completely satisfying for audience members, it too has a lot to recommend it. There are many hilarious scenes, and the musical numbers, under the direction of SpeakEasy vet Paul S. Katz and choreographed by David Conolly, are delightful, from the hoopla of "Side By Side" (complete with party hats and soft shoe) to the tenderness of "Someone is Waiting" (beautifully lit by Karen Perlow). And while you may not leave the theatre any more enlightened about marriage (or about why such a boring man as Bobby has so many friends), you will almost certainly leave having been entertained.
Company in the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St in Boston now through November 13th. Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 4 pm; Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets range from $30 to $40. For tickets or information, call the Box Office at 617-933-8600 or visit the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St. or visit one of these websites: www.speakeasystage.com or www.bostontheatrescene.com.