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Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

De'adre Aziza
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The line from 19th-century Germany aristocracy to 21st-centry adolescence is shorter than has been previously assumed in Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine. Jordan Harrison's wistful and fitful biographical triptych at Playwrights Horizons attempts to show that the more the music changes, the more the dancing stays the same.

The three couples waltzing through relationships of varying complexities are Doris and Vic Watts (De'adre Aziza and Michael Crane), a young black singer and her Phil Spector-like manager from the 1950s; King Ludwig II and Richard Wagner (Laura Heisler and David Chandler), whose close pairing and patronage produced some of the world's most renowned operas; and a present-day high school student and his beloved teacher Mr. Campani (Tobias Segal and Tom Nelis) who are wading through the waters of musical appreciation while coping with their own unsatisfied sexual urges.

All three duos, under undue environmental pressure, find solace in music, which links all six as surely as feelings unexpressed, unacknowledged, or unappreciated. Vic is so enamored of Wagner's "Liebestod" that it becomes the inspiration for the grand pop he establishes for his muse and eventual wife, Doris; Ludwig and Wagner conceive their spectacles to escape into fantasy, just as The Young Man and Mr. Campani must to survive in a culture that neither respects nor understands them.

And as long as Harrison sticks to the last 60 years, Doris to Darlene sticks together. Comparing the illicit romance of a white man and a black woman to the codependency that forms between gay teacher and gay student in an otherwise straight world is less tricky than it sounds, and Harrison finds increasingly intriguing ways to send earlier musical and social advances reverberating through later decades.

But while the latter eras benefit from the Ludwig and Wagner sections, it's those scenes that are the least cohesive on their own. While Harrison tries to draw close parallels between their artistic pretensions and those of Vic (who believes that "There is a genius in the stupidity of pop," and seeks to prove it every chance he gets), he devotes less time to the music they constructed and more to the peccadilloes of the two men. Chandler doesn't find enough of the tortured artist in Wagner to convince as the spiritual grandfather to both Vic and Campani; Heisler, whose performance emanates mostly from her fright-wig hairdo, more readily suggests a stereotypical lesbian librarian than a touched artistic visionary.

Les Waters's production is just too eager to capitalize on Harrison's heightened method of presentation - practically every line is delivered as a third-person pronouncement - and a result sacrifices the heart Harrison intended to pass down from one generation of forbidden lovers to the next. Broad-stroke costume design (by Christal Weatherly) and quick hit characterizations only exacerbate the problem: Crane, in oversized sunglasses and overgreased hair, looks and sounds like he just stepped off the set of Boogie Nights 2; Nelis, speaking in a voice that sounds like it's constricted by Campani's bow tie, is so pinched-precise queeny that you expect him to step forward and belt out Tristan und Isolde well before he actually does.

Aziza, though, captures a beguiling sense of world-wise innocence in tracking Darlene from her humble beginnings to her eventual resurgence as a 1980s-comeback phenomenon. She stokes every fire of determination within a woman who spent her entire life allowing others to push her around, and grows in triumphant stature every time she pushes back. The Young Man similarly grows in fits and starts, with Segal informing (but not flooding) his character with confusion that gives his physical and psychological needs a palpable potency.

Both performers vividly embody the women and men who have ever loved others at great personal expense and realize - usually too late - how hopelessly interconnected such feelings can be. Doris to Darlene might be more effective with less artifice in the script, and would definitely hit harder with less artifice in the acting and direction. But it nonetheless touches on the powerful reminders we all sometimes need that there are no beginnings or ends, only constantly shifting middles, and that even from them we can learn something - about others and ourselves alike.

Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine
Through December 23
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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