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A Bed and A Chair: A New York Love Affair

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bernadette Peters and Norm Lewis
Photo by Joan Marcus.
If there's a lesson to be gained from A Bed and a Chair—and that's a skyscraping if—it's that too many people muddle desire with mere sex. For all the sleeping around that occurs in this turgid new concoction that's running at City Center through Sunday, no one involved ever seems to want anything. Which, in turn, leaves the audience longing for something—anything—to result from what, in theory anyway, should be an intoxicating blend of the steamy jazz talents of Wynton Marsalis and the scintillating musical-theatre know-how of Stephen Sondheim.

If you're a die-hard fan of either artist, or any members of the seven-eighths-killer cast that includes Bernadette Peters, Norm Lewis, and Jeremy Jordan, you'll unquestionably find something to latch on to. But the evening's structure (or lack thereof) and even its basic staging, courtesy of director John Doyle (who conceived the evening with Peter Gethers and Jack Viertel), ensures that you won't be able to hold on for long.

That's not shocking. Because Sondheim's songs, intelligent and intricate though they might be, are so rooted in the time, place, and character of the shows from which they hail, they don't extract well, and tend to reject alternate contexts. And though Marsalis is an unparalleled arranger and conductor, the blaring brass he flavors is not naturally theatrical (as the just-opened Broadway production of After Midnight, itself based on a similar City Center venture two years ago, proves). Only a helmer with vision, who can reconcile these problems and funnel them into a compelling new narrative, could make this work.

That person is not Doyle. Though in recent years he's become the go-to Sondheim stager (he was most recently responsible for the frostbite-inducing Passion at Classic Stage Company), his grasp of how to elicit character and from the musical-theatre form and push along plot within it are, at its best, casual, and more frequently indifferent. Those qualities are in full force here, and what results from his efforts is not quite a revue, not quite a concert, and not quite a jazz showcase, and thus is not quite comprehensible.

Jeremy Jordan and Cyrille Aimée
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The general idea—and Doyle allows no idea to be more than general—is that four people (Peters and Lewis as an older pair, Jordan and Cyrille Aimée as their younger counterparts) sing about their affection for New York and, eventually, each other, and are now and then augmented by dancing "shadow" selves (respectively Elizabeth Parkinson, Grasan Kingsberry, Tyler Hanes, and Meg Gillentine) to represent the things they can't reveal to the world. And against a backdrop of projections (designed by Steve Cannon) we're to experience the hustle, bustle, and occasional hush of Manhattan as it transforms their libidos, souls, and theoretically hearts.

It doesn't quite work out that way. When, for example, we meet the four leads, they march out one at a time contending with a prop (Aimée a shoulder bag, Jordan a water bottle, Lewis a newspaper) designed to highlight their insecurities and limited spectra of attention, and deliver huge chunks of songs facing upstage to highlight their distance from emotional connection—and, by extension, us, which makes it impossible for us to care about, let alone acknowledge them, at the time we most must.

So it doesn't much matter that Lewis sings (convincingly) "So Many People," or that Jordan mutters "Another Hundred People," which is too bad, as those songs at least suggest Lewis as an increasingly reluctant workaholic and Jordan as a serial player thrilling at the world going by. Exactly who Aimée is thinking of in her opening "What More Do I Need?" cannot be determined, and no one seems interested in the question in any event. And why Peters struts through "Broadway Baby" is equally a mystery—she's a struggling actress, but parading down the Main Stem in a skintight pink dress (the costumes are by Ann Hould-Ward) with a fashionable jacket? Even if it's supposed to be symbolic, it's scattered.

Our expectation that the four will eventually tangle, intertwine, bicker, and make up à la that other Sondheim revue-sical, Putting it Together, are dashed in the scenes that follow. The scenario runs through every conceivable heterosexual combination of partners, but all we see is the (fully clothed, perfectly still) bed play, with no hints of relationships, meetings, fights, or flings in between. Nothing is dramatized, onstage or off, so nothing is important. And when, in what a sensible plot would have as its climax, the various figures gather at a trendy cocktail party and start sharing stories and comparing conquests, you don't so much wonder why you feel nothing (though you don't) as you do wonder why you're being asked to feel anything at all.

The night comes alive only in the dance interludes, which typically follow the various physical assignations. Thanks to Parker Esse's choreography, which throbs with honest-to-goodness style and heat, and Marsalis's searing arrangements for the 15-piece band (under David Loud's baton), these scenes are genuinely erotically charged, and convey the excitement, disappointment, and even dread of intimacy that—one suspects—the whole show is really supposed to be about.

Marsalis's work otherwise competes with, and rarely complements, the singers (Aimée struggles most in this regard); except in the afterglow, Sondheim's music does not need Marsalis's treatment. But leave it to its own devices and add the riveting dancers—most notably Hanes and Gillentine, who bring a palpable, playful sexuality to their moves, though Parkinson and Kingsberry are superb, too—and you see the potential for a ballet or dance musical in this material.

With the exception of Aimée, who's an acclaimed French jazz vocalist but useless at conveying character or intention here, the leads don't disappoint, either. Jordan's smoky swagger reads incredibly "Manhattan single" and lends some believability to his contribution to the constant bed-hopping, and is suavely accompanied by his confident, steel-belted tenor. Though Lewis has no chance to unleash the show-stopping vocals of which he's capable, his velvety singing and resigned manner project enough soupy regret to carry his unrequited yearning past the lip of the stage.

Peters fares best, as she's a resourceful and inventive enough actress to supply the missing through lines. Her "Broadway Baby" is excellent, determined but neither cutesy nor decrepit (the extremes to which this Follies song is often subjected), but she builds on it to depict a mature woman who matures through exposure to the myriad options the surrounding metropolis provides. You see the toll her one-night stands and despondent days take on her, as well as the remnants of hope they leave behind for her to cling to. She's almost entirely broken by "The Ladies Who Lunch," but that number's piercing realizations propel her to the understanding she needs of her mistakes—and how she can correct them.

Once sketched, these threads are fascinating, but they require a performer of Peters's experience with musicals and Sondheim. Her cast mates lack equivalent gifts, and their director has left them twisting to find themselves while hiding from us, as if that struggle—untethered from catharsis, to say nothing of basic showmanship—is its own reward. It's not, and so A Bed a Chair isn't either. It displays promise, but only because Sondheim and Marsalis are not easily dismissed. If that promise is to be realized, someone besides Peters must unite the individual elements into a story that matters about people that matter. As currently constituted, the liaisons are all anyone can expect to recollect—and, regardless of what this show wants us to believe, there's quite a bit more to love, and more to New York.

A Bed and A Chair: A New York Love Affair
Through November 17
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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