Chicago Theater Review: COMPANY (Writers Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 27, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

KEEPING COMPANY
SONDHEIM’S BITTERSWEET BEST

It’s the first musical in Writers Theatre’s sumptuous new $30 million-dollar home in Glencoe, a light-loving complex with a more spacious lobby than the somewhat cramped seating of its three-quarter mainstage. The Broadway consecration of this North Shore venue is, appropriately, a 1970 show about friends and strangers in desperate straits, conditional pals who learn what matters amidst what merely moves. That, of course, is the continuum—change and continuity–that every new space enters and pursues from its inception.

Thom Miller, Chlesea Morgan

So Company stands for Writers Theatre itself as much as Stephen Sondheim’s tangled tale of togetherness: There’s a cunning contrast between five more or less married couples and their seemingly confirmed bachelor friend. The friction between their regrets and his fecklessness fuels this early, episodic Stephen Sondheim musical, a show with enough brains to hit the heart. So, if Bobby remains unyoked at 35, it could be because his “institutionalized,” manically match-making, friends have set cautionary examples with their drugging, boozing, infidelities and threats of divorce. Bobby’s lusty life of interchangeable dates is its own dead-end excuse for a mid-life crisis. But his initial, first-act solution is appropriately halfhearted: “Marry Me a Little.”

Scott, Ruiz, MartinSondheim and bookwriter George Furth cleverly chronicle the complications and crises in bittersweet, ambiguous showpieces like “Sorry/Grateful” and “Poor Baby,” as well as the vaudevillian warmth in “Side By Side By Side” and the title song. (Here “company” means both the opposite of loneliness and what misery loves best.)

Those songs, ably shaped by music director Tom Vendafreddo, revolve like a carousel around eligible bachelor Bobby, a very un-lonely New Yorker celebrating a pivotal birthday. He’s the unsought recipient of a ton of contagious concern from the compulsively, reflexively or instinctively married couples who comprise his industrious friends. (The slick plot, with its sitcom setups and twisting revelations, recalls bookwriter Furth’s own The Supporting Cast and its gay counterpart, Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey.)

Patrick Martin, Thom Miller

Bobby’s tensile friends include control-freak Sarah (Alexis J. Rogers)and her co-dependent husband Harry (James Earl Jones II); Southern-belle Susan (Tiffany Scott) and her estranged and closeted Peter (Gabriel Ruiz); amiable Jenny (Blair Robertson) and considerate David (Patrick Martin), who would love to be single “for an hour”; frantic Amy (Allison Hendrix), a shiksa who almost doesn’t marry her adoring Paul (Bernard Balbot); and sophisticates Larry (Patrick Sarb) and Joanne (Lia Mortensen), tethered to each other by their mutual fear of the unknown. Joanne’s amorous assault will help to shock Bobby from his fear of commitment. It also fuels the famous closer “Being Alive,” where the drifter determines to be himself, enough to realize that one’s company and two’s a crowd. (The ever sardonic Sondheim could easily have shifted it into a minor key and reduced it to “Being Alone”—and still have delivered a ton of truth telling.)

Mild, Morgan, GodwinFor them and for the three ladies in and out of Bobby’s lust (sweet stewardess April, ebullient Marta, “the soul of New York,” and knowing Kathy, the girl who got away), Sondheim delivers delicious numbers, ranging from Marta’s perversely New York tribute to anonymity, “Another Hundred People,” to the elaborately convoluted “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” It’s all backed up by a seven-piece orchestra with Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations necessarily reduced by Ian Weinberger.

Writers Theatre resident director William Brown maintains the Sondheim supremacy with his playful, bouncy and fluid tribute to a passive-aggressive “city of strangers” in all its normal nuttiness. Todd Rosenthal’s thrust set—bleachers, a balcony, and a backdrop perilously depicting the sheer drop from that perilous presence—perfectly suggests New York’s vertical vortexes.

Miller, Mortensen, Sarb

Company is a hungry show, eager to assert its sometimes borrowed wisdom: Writers Theatre’s rough-and-tumble urgency fits the bill, with the ensemble acting delivering everything a chorus, Greek or Manhattan, can provide. What suits the story fits the staging: Company is all about ambivalence. Hardly a moment happens that isn’t reversed, emotionally, psychologically or factually, by the next one. All 14 performances aptly reflect these oddly enthralling uncertainties.

Thom Miller cand cast 2

A sort of human blank slate upon which his friends project their losses and gains, Thom Miller’s Robert is also a solid survivor: He’s a malleable “work in progress” who conveys both the curiously unattached “Bobby-Baby-Bubbi” who fascinates his friends and the haunted loner who aches for connection in “Being Alive.” Miller brings both hunger and hope to that valedictory number. In its troubled declaration of independence Robert tries to mount the contradictions that have dogged his character and his chums for the previous 140 minutes. Amid all these Gotham neuroses he still seems a grounded soul who stands out by hanging back.

Balbot, Hendrix, Miller

Standouts among Robert’s 13-member supporting “family” include Mortensen’s bibulous ferocity in “The Ladies Who Lunch.” In this self-loathing pity party Joanne undermines every pretension she ever pursued. Mortensen inevitably recalls Elaine Stritch but with more repression and less rage. Jess Godwin’s winsome stewardess (so moving in “Barcelona”) says a lot about the leftovers in Bobby’s calculatedly casual lifestyle. Christine Mild incarnates the free spirit of 70s’ New York as a date too unmoored even for freedom-loving Bobby. Hendrix runs Amy’s tour-de-force “Getting Married Today” along a fine knife edge between joy and farce.

James Earl Jones II, Alexis J. Rogers

Company may seem dated in its view of the Big Apple as a couples’ mecca where anonymity and intimacy constantly vie for dominance. References to the “generation gap” mingle with mobile phones and 70s’ disco harmonies in an inevitably uneven updating. But the interpersonal dynamics so cleverly lampooned and confirmed by these songs remain in full force: The show keeps the crowds it earned 46 years ago.

Thom Miller, Jess Godwin

photos by Michael Brosilow

Lia Mortensen, verticalCompany
Writers Theatre
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
ends on July 31, 2016
EXTENDED to August 7, 2016
for tickets, call 847.242.6000 or visit Writers

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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