Arts

Review: In a Gender-Flipped Revival, ‘Company’ Loves Misery

If there was ever a good time to dislike “Company,” now isn’t it.

No, the death on Nov. 26 of the composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim makes this more properly a time for sorrow and gratitude. He was, after all, the man who wrote those feelings into a beautiful “Company” song — “Sorry-Grateful” — and, in so doing, introduced ambivalence at an almost cellular level to the American musical theater.

But let’s face it, the revival that opened on Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater is not the “Company” Sondheim and the book writer George Furth (along with the director Hal Prince) unleashed on Broadway in 1970. Sure, the score remains great, and there are a few perfectly etched performances in supporting roles, especially Patti LuPone’s as the undermining, pickled Joanne.

As directed by Marianne Elliott, however, in a gender-flipped version abetted by Sondheim himself, what was once the story of a man who is terrified of intimacy becomes something much less interesting: the story of a woman who is justifiably tired of her friends.

That woman — now Bobbie instead of Bobby, and played by the winsome Katrina Lenk — no longer hears the busy signal of missed emotional connections that pulsed through the songs in their original incarnation. This time, what accompanies her as she studies five partnerships and samples three lovers is the ticking of a biological clock.

Reframed that way, and with heaps of oversize symbolic baggage piled on top, the story comes to seem overwrought and incoherent. Gone is the affirmative lesson Bobbie learns from the smothering couples attending her 35th birthday party — a milestone she’d rather ignore. Instead, as if to prove that “Company” loves misery, this production drags her off the pedestal of her aloofness and into the mud of a long, dark night of the soul. At one point she vomits into a bucket.

Indecent proposal, from left: Terence Archie as Larry, Patti LuPone as Joanne and Lenk.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Not that coherence was ever the material’s strong point. From the start, critics complained about a main character who seemed dangerously recessive, observing other people’s foibles in loosey-goosey comic sketches that barely added up. No wonder: They started life as separate one-act plays.

In one of those sketches, the low-level friction between a husband and wife erupts in a jiu-jitsu match; in another, the apparently perfect shine of marital bliss turns out to be the glow of impending divorce. A third couple learns the meaning of devotion while smoking pot; a fourth couple — now configured as two gay men — experiences hiccups on the way to the altar.

Still, as strung together by Sondheim’s diamantine songs, “Company” offered a groundbreaking way of looking at its subject, less through a microscope than a kaleidoscope. Sarcasm warming into insight was the hallmark of the style, which borrowed the nonrepresentational techniques of midcentury drama and wed it to a psychological acuity rarely before seen in American musicals. The result was a new method of storytelling in which thematic consistency trumped conventional plot — and nearly obliterated it.

Though fascinating in theory, and worth considering as a way of reorienting the original’s outdated sexual politics, Elliott’s idea that the material could be regendered for a new era completely disrupts that consistency. Aside from Sondheim’s customized new lyrics, only a few of the alterations made to accommodate the thesis scan. One involves the gay couple, Jamie (formerly Amy) and Paul. For them, getting married really is the terrifying unknown described in the showstopping, tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today.” Explaining his decision to cancel the ceremony, Jamie (Matt Doyle) says, in a line that’s been added: “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”

That moment rings true. But when Bobbie takes advantage of Jamie’s jitters to suggest that he marry her instead of Paul, she doesn’t seem needy or wolfish, as Bobby did when propositioning Amy; she seems foolish and disrespectful. That Lenk fails to make sense of the moment is not her fault. There are no lines or logic that would allow her to do so.

From left, Jennifer Simard and Christopher Sieber, with Lenk. The low-level friction between Simard and Sieber’s characters, a husband and wife, erupts in a jiu-jitsu match.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Even more flummoxing is the scene in which, as originally written, Joanne, tired of Bobby’s passivity, and perhaps her own, suggests they have an affair. Short of turning Joanne into a lesbian, which might have been more interesting, Elliott has little choice but to turn her into a pimp, goading Bobbie to “make it” with her husband, Larry. Perhaps if Larry were not a tertiary character, barely fleshed out in Furth’s script, this might not seem like a directorial hail-Mary pass.

Yet it’s amazing what a little LuPone can do to distract from such things. Whether swinging her legs like a mischievous child or squatting on a toilet — yes, Elliott’s staging goes there — she brings her precision comedy and riveting charisma to every moment she’s onstage. Her two big numbers, “The Little Things You Do Together” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” both left pretty much alone, are uncommonly taut and specific.

Too bad that Lenk, so beguiling in “The Band’s Visit” and “Indecent,” is not as lucky, both miscast and mishandled. Bobby’s transformation into Bobbie has been accomplished at the cost of a few ribs, turning the character into a rag doll. Unable to meet the dramatic and vocal demands of the role, Lenk seems merely pummeled by it. To be fair, Elliott’s staging, full of athletic busywork and “Alice in Wonderland” contortions of scale on Bunny Christie’s almost too-fascinating set, is quite a workout. Maybe that’s why Christie, who also designed the costumes, has oddly given Lenk plain white sneakers to wear with her dressy scarlet pantsuit.

But in trying to disguise the show’s revue-like structure by centering the action in Bobbie’s mind, Elliott paradoxically causes her to recede even further than usual. (At one point she brings on a battalion of Bobbies, as if to compensate.) In response, you become uncommonly grateful for secondary characters who have clear things to do and do them smartly, like Jennifer Simard as the jiu-jitsu wife and Claybourne Elder as a himbo flight attendant.

Eventually, though, the show runs out of distractions.

Sondheim was collaborative to a fault; it’s no contradiction that he hotly resented criticism of Furth’s work on “Company” and yet (after initial skepticism) eagerly endorsed Elliott’s renovations. “What keeps theater alive is the chance always to do it differently,” he told The Times shortly before his death. This was no mere bromide; Sondheim allowed a masterpiece like “Sweeney Todd” to be cut to ribbons for Tim Burton’s film and saw the cult flop “Merrily We Roll Along” through more surgeries than Frankenstein’s monster.

In that sense, this “Company” is perfectly in line with his intentions: It’s new. And truth be told, I was never less than riveted — if usually in the way Bobby is, eyeballing messy marriages. Nor is the chance to hear the great score live with a 14-piece orchestra to be taken lightly; is there a more exciting opening number than the title song?

So I guess I’m sorry-grateful. Sorry for not liking this version of “Company” better — and grateful to Sondheim for providing the chance to find out.

Company
At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, Manhattan; companymusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.

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