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Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Graydon Long, Marrick Smith, and Brad Nacht
Photo by Carol Rosegg

To dwell too much, too quickly, on the many, many things wrong with the musical titled Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter, which just opened at the Minetta Lane Theatre, would be to risk not discussing the few very real things it somehow manages to get right. So let's start there.

The show's script and songs, by Icelandic writer Ívar Páll Jónsson (based on a story he conceived with his brother, Gunnlaugur), tell a tale of unfortunately world-shattering significance: about a financial crisis that cripples a tiny community, and the resolution of which will forever change those that live there. Though it's perhaps most intimately connected to the bursting of Iceland's speculative banking bubble in the last decade, certainly it's easy enough for Americans to understand the impact, as we are, in many ways, still under the effects of a similar financial collapse that occurred in 2008.

Getting someone to sit and watch a traditional play (or, for that matter, a television show or movie) about such dangers would likely not be easy, especially as the story hinges on a machine that literally prints promissory notes and seems like a miracle invention until the actual money-holders discover the government has no way to pay them off. At least in theory, the rock score (appropriately orchestrated for Matt Basile's four-piece band by Stefán Örn Gunnlaugsson) would make the fairly arcane concepts relatable, and convey the urgency of such matters in the real world.

Jónsson and his director, Bergur Ingólfsson, don't shy away from the political ramifications of these occurrences, either. The second act is consumed with documenting the cyclical nature of human stupidity, and our tendency to continue to put into positions of power the types of people (and, in some cases, the very same people) who caused the trouble in the first place. As the musical reaches its conclusion, it becomes terrifyingly clear that the characters—like too many of us in the real world—haven't learned a darn thing from their travails. This is legitimately chill-inducing, a more potent reminder than you usually get from theatre these days that songs and dances don't make everything all hunky-dory.

Kate Shindle and Cady Huffman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

But aside from a maybe-two-minute climactic belting duel between Cady Huffman (The Producers) as the mayor who instigated the implosion and Kate Shindle, who plays a strong-willed victim of it, that's the extent of the good—and for that matter the tolerable—in this show. For their obvious good and even intelligent intentions, Jónsson and Ingólfsson have crafted something that's barely watchable or listenable and borderline incoherent, stretching themselves way, way too far to fuse enlightenment and entertainment.

The ungainly title is a chief example of this. The story really does take place inside the arm of an ordinary working-class shlub (who's depicted only in projections by Petr Hloušek, who also designed the girder-heavy set), in a town called Elbowville. Other cheekily named settlements include Eyescokette, Knee York, and (sigh) Texass and Penisylvania. Though Jónsson has stated he intended this to dissociate events from any specific place or people, it creates a huge tonal discrepancy that creeps into every aspect of the writing. Sure, there are a scattering of clever applications of this ("We already owe Monbrezt Mutual 10 million lymph notes"), but the overall lack of genuine wit makes it all but impossible to take this serious subject seriously.

Without that underpinning of grim reality, there's very little else to chew on. The book is poorly sketched out, with elements introduced without reason and discarded without notice, crucial characters vanish from the action for untenable periods, and subplots vary from the useless to the inane (one character dreams of being cuddled, another muses endlessly on the relative efficacy of shoulder pads versus implants). The score barely qualifies as such, with almost every number ending abruptly before making a point, and none evincing any real sense of unity or dramatic purpose; the biggest production number contains more superfluous tapping than any musical I can recall since Billy Elliot. (This show's choreographer, Lee Proud, also worked on that one.)

It perhaps goes without saying that the sound design (by Carl Casella) is more about piercing volume than clarity. The costumes, by Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir and Edna Guðmundsdóttir, blend crisp business suits with grotesque fun-house-mirror creations for no reason I could discern. And the lights, by Jeff Croiter and Cory Pattak, are sometimes metal-concert hyperactive and sometimes so lazy that it seems as if they can't be bothered to light up the general section of the stage in which someone is speaking or singing. Ingólfsson's staging is serviceable, but spare and rarely imaginative.

Aside from Huffman and Shindle, who work harder than any actors should have to in order to elevate their roles, the performers often visibly struggle to make sense of what they're saying and doing. Patrick Boll as the token nasty functionary, Jesse Wildman as the divisive love interest, and Graydon Long as the reluctant hero do what they can, and each manages to shine for a few moments. Less lucky is Marrick Smith, who plays Peter, the man at the center of the action who unwittingly develops the system that destroys the economy: Though a nimble dancer, his acting is wooden and his singing is uncomfortable to listen to for long, his shaky and falsetto-prone voice an ill-fitting match for a role that demands hardcore rock screaming.

Not that anyone could save the part or the show—ultimately, the sensibility is too off-kilter and the execution too haphazard by American standards of polish. Good ideas on their own simply aren't enough; you need writing and an atmosphere that will support it. While watching this musical, I was reminded not of Urinetown, which would seem to be its natural spiritual progenitor, but of Enron, the British play that flopped hard on Broadway in 2010 because it was far too interested in fantastically retelling history Americans already knew the sobering particulars of all too well.

The same principle applies here, of course, and without the added benefits of real people and real emotions to latch on to, Jónsson's surreal leaps of fancy aren't ones we have any obvious reasons to make. There's unquestionable value to the important messages the playwright presents. But it's all contained in elbow. When you're going to see a musical, don't you prefer to get punched in the gut?

Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter
Through September 27
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street
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