Can anyone find a theater story to tell that avoids the backstage cliches? What about a musical about the stage as seen through the eyes of dusty literary lion Henry James? It would give even the ballsiest writer pause.Yet, Polly Pen and Laurence Klavan have done just that with a new musical called Embarrassments. In 1998, Klavan and Pen collaborated on an opera, Bed and Sofa, which also had its premiere at the Wilma Theater.
The stage is the St. James Theatre in London in 1895 where James (Henry Stram) is ready to stake his fortunes on his first play Guy Domville, an overwritten psychological drama about a nobleman priest. Things don’t go as well over the footlights for the author as they do on the pages ofPortrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl.
James’ lead, Domville, is played by George Alexander (Michael X. Martin) who wants him to change the ending that would have the priest wed.The brief opening musical number called "Nerves" immediately sets Embarrassments up as a musical farce with dark themes.After he gives Domville his final suggestions with the part, James scurries out on the verge of a theatrical nervous breakdown. He escapes to a cafe to calm down and instead begins writing a short story called Nona Vincent, a tale about the foibles of artists and patrons, that naturally, parallel what is going on around him. So the fate of James’ play and the play in his head unfold together.
Down the street Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is playing to the delight of London society making James so distracted by the possibility of producing a bomb that he attends that play instead of the opening of his own. The public fawns over Wilde’s epigrams as James, seated among them, fumes.
Ambitiously, the subtext to Embarrassments is about the creative process, with which James’ is struggling and about which Pen and Klavan have whipped up a wry essay.But it makes for a lot of balls to keep up in the air at once and a couple nearly dropped on opening night.There are no showstoppers in this musical, it simply remains engaging throughout and is delivered impressively by the entire cast. There are sumptuous songs, with simple titles like "Union Square" (a remembrance of James in childhood); "Me" (a narcissistic rant by jaded actors); "Please Fail" (a pity me ballad by an art patron) and "The Critics" (a witty trio with Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw all in tails and poised to assassinate James).
As lyricists, Pen & Klavan never go for the obvious and, admirably, there is an almost complete avoidance of predictable rhymes.Like the play’s overall structure, there are some jarring segues from dialogue to song that show moments of obvious strain on the actors. Jennifer Lyon as the fictional actress Violet Grey (who is portraying Nona Vincent) has incredible stage presence–in voice, body and comic timing. With James Sugg as Alan Wayworth, the fictional version of James, the pair have great voices and their one duet "The Words" was so gorgeous, it seemed cut short.Martin’s Alexander/Domville is bombastically sly and Ann Morrison gives Mrs. Alsager frayed-edged delicacy.
If there is any deficiency in Embarrassments it is the characterization of Henry James.Almost a secondary role after the events are set in motion, Pen and Klavan do not unveil James as complex and keep him a driven shadowy figure.There are instead threads to Jamesian prose with lyrical allusions to the complex characters of his novels. Fortunately, Henry Stram’s James is pitch perfect, with intriguing glimpses into the writer’s tortured psyche.
Blanka Zizka’s direction smoothes out much of the show’s tricky construction but sets a dizzying pace.The program listed an intermission, but this night it was played without one–probably a wise decision until they iron some things out.The spare set is brought alive by great lighting design by Russell H. Champak.The caged music hall footlights skirting the polished wood floors are used on a background scrim to create the appearances both of bare-bulb theater spaces and the lush surreal interiors in the Nona scenes. The four piece offstage orchestra had a full sound and handled Pen’s subtle styles with richness and clarity.