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Everythings Turning Into Beautiful

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In any play with music, shouldn't there actually be a play?

Oh, the music is there - Jimmie James has composed some half a dozen tunes, ranging in style from rap to R&B and torch-pop remix, that could easily support radio play. But while the people onstage utter a few words now and then, move around, and sing those songs, it's all of too little of consequence from them to be considered characters. Rambling about their music, their relationship; now they're together, now they're not... Is there a point to all this?

A burning desire to answer this question might be the only good reason to head to the Acorn Theatre, where Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's Everythings Turning Into Beautiful just opened. This production is that impossibly rare thing: A near-complete miss for The New Group, one of Off-Broadway's most valuable and accomplished companies. Until now, it has routinely balanced old-world theatre values with youthful vibrancy, frequently leading to exciting dramatic collisions challenging traditional notions about the borders between adolescence and adulthood.

So on one level, Everythings fits right in. It concerns two songwriting partners, Brenda and Sam (Daphne Rubin-Vega and Malik Yoba), who've long harbored feelings for each other, and are desperate to shed their indiscriminate pasts in favor of a stable, mature relationship together. They were both once successful artists who believed that they had infinite options for work, for partners, and for play. But life, as it so often does, had other ideas: Brenda is now alone, despondent, and desperate for the good life she never attained; twice-divorced, father-of-two Sam is a reforming philanderer being run through the family-court ringer.

But where other New Group hits like Abigail's Party, Hurlyburly, and Avenue Q used such stereotypes as springboards for more engaging discussions, for Rosenfeld they're the entire event. The world Sam and Brenda inhabit, as typified by Beowulf Boritt's elegantly cluttered Chelsea one-bedroom set, is one in which sleek, snazzy style substitutes for substance. Any disagreements can be resolved by trading pithy banter, faking panic attacks, and bonding by singing (James's songs occasionally - and vaguely - comment on the action). Sam and Brenda even make a mock music video for that best of worst reasons: because they can.

But once Rosenfeld establishes the duo as perfect mismatches - and thus, perfect mates - there's nothing for him to do but explore the various iterations of "not in love" until he gets them into bed, then finagle that dalliance into permanency. He offers no concrete reasons to expect their failure or care about their success, and so much of their dialogue is inane romantibabble that it generally tends to scamper in one ear only seconds before tumbling violently out of the other.

This could be Rosenfeld's subtle joke that songwriting success today occurs independent of a poetic soul. But nothing else about Everythings suggests this sort of commentary has intentionally leaked into this coworkers-become-friends-become-lovers story. Nor do Rubin-Vega's and Yoba's performances hint at their characters' artistic dissatisfaction; they usually determine bad luck and poor choices to be the culprits.

The actors do, however, infuse as much depth and charm as possible into their characters and share an exciting chemistry, even if each tends to overplay their broken-spirited and brokenhearted natures. (Rubin-Vega even overplays broken-voiced, giving washed-up Brenda vocals so strained - and so unlike the firmly textured tones she employed in last season's Bernarda Alba - that you fear for the vocal health of the actress, not the character.) But despite Yoba's cuddly charm and Rubin-Vega's ethereal, soft-cored hardness, neither creates much of a person from Rosenfeld's haphazard character sketches.

Forsman's bleak and reductive staging reveals his own inabilities to rouse this narcoleptic script. For that, James's songs serve a special purpose: Despite their musical and lyrical sameness (properly rooting them in the repetitive, derivative musical genre in which Brenda and Sam work), they might well start your toes tapping and your shoulders swiveling. James's music, however temporarily, manages to create a union between age-old concerns. It's all in Everythings Turning Into Beautiful that does.

Everythings Turning Into Beautiful
Through August 26
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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