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Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Matthew Shepard and Amy Bodnar
Photo by Joan Marcus.

There's a reason musicals tend to shy away from therapy as a subject: Singing about one's troubles is seldom as interesting as singing through one's troubles. The rare, brilliant exception does slip through (such as the Hart-Gershwin-Weill Lady in the Dark), but ironclad certainty of intent or cheerful self-delusion are, by their nature, almost always more dramatically captivating than couch-bound explicating.

So much of that can be found in Sessions, Albert Tapper's depressive new musical at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, that it's surprising one of the theatrical unions didn't demand the set's sofas and chairs be granted their own bows during the curtain call. At the very least, they often come out looking better than the patients who plop and perch on them, when they're not wearing or pushing them around in the dance numbers that erupt with puzzling frequency, and who display with stunning alacrity that there's plenty for them to get off their chests.

From a lovelorn loner who just can't move out of his mother's house and a real-estate tycoon who longs for his father's acceptance to a late-middle-aged couple whose marriage is built on disagreement, the man in charge of this group therapy clan, Dr. Peterson (Matthew Shepard), certainly has his hands full. And he must, of course, attempt to solve all his charges' problems while dealing with a serious one of his own - his attraction to his bombshell-blonde patient Leila (Amy Bodnar).

As the colliding concerns of doctor and patients form the entirety of Sessions, the show's success hinges on your being involved and invested in whether these people will realize and eventually meet their goals. But despite game direction and lively (if unfocused) choreography from Steven Petrillo, the bitching, whining, and moping that constitute nearly every character preclude this from happening with any regularity. The score's plethora of songs that skim the surface of psychoanalysis, and bear titles like "I Never Spent Time With My Dad" and "I'm an Average Guy," torpedo any chance the show has of being incisive or enlightening.

The therapeutic and the musical mesh only in Mary, a battered wife and cancer-survivor who sings a pair of attractive ballads about her love and devotion to her husband. If these songs hardly broach the territory of the genre's preeminent example, "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?" from Carousel, they connect with a deeper sense of self and soul than anything else in the score, and are delivered by Trisha Rapier with clarity and honesty that generally elude the rest of the cast.

Even Shepard and Bodnar, who are saddled with the burden of the show's most notable subplot, can't generate equivalent emotional heat. Bodnar is costumed (by Peter Barbieri, Jr., who also created the set) with skin-clinging suggestiveness, but can't shimmy or shake her way into an alluring portrayal of a woman who uses sex to hide her bone-deep sadness. Shepard makes Peterson an appropriate cipher in his confrontations with his own therapist (only heard over the theater's sound system) while overplaying his inability to aid his own patients and evincing none of the magnetism that makes him as successful as he apparently is.

The irony Tapper sees in Peterson's story is that a man so ill-equipped for coping with his own life would be responsible for so many others' as well. And were Sessions told with an eye and an ear toward explaining what drives this well-meaning man into a deception of con-job proportions, it might rise above the well-trod territory it now holds. But stories this lazily familiar are hardly worthy of further explorations if your only companions on the journey are too disconnected from their own hearts to say or sing anything worth listening to.

Through August 18
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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