A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Prologue Theater Productions
at Court Theatre
at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop
No film ever fell into a better musical: in Stephen Sondheim's world-weary but compassionately wise A Little Night Music (1973), Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) lost only its subtitles. "Send in the Clowns," one of Sondheim's few hit songs, is the logical, bittersweet outgrowth of the worldly cynicism of a Swedish farce about lovers who know their hearts only from hearsay evidence.
Sondheim's sardonic lyrics mellowed by his all-waltz score, A Little Night Music explores the amorous rearrangements and reconciliations of three couples, only one of which remains intact at the end of this "weekend in the country." As the Scandinavian summer night smiles on human follies, the famous actress Desiree Armfeldt succumbs to her old flame, the famous lawyer Fredrik Egerman; he in turn loses his too-young, virgin wife Anne to his own lovesick son Henrik, while Desiree's idiot lover Count Carl-Magnus returns to the all-suffering, Figaro-like countess. (The satisfaction here, as Bergman knew, is that match-breaking can be just as fascinating as love at first sight.)
The pain of discovering yourself by falling in love with someone else provides the subtext for almost every stage minute of this witty turn-of-the-century mating dance. Just one out of a catalog of self-deceptions, Henrik's priggish idealism is gently mocked because it only ineptly hides his lust for his stepmother. Likewise, Fredrik's pretension that he's protecting Anne from the real world, hers that a marriage can be founded on gratitude, Desiree's that changing men like dressing rooms ("Perpetual Anticipation," as one song puts it) will keep her young--all such impediments to Desiree's dream of a "coherent existence after so many years of muddle" have got to give way to something truer.
Watching the illusions tumble is the chief delight of this enterprising inaugural effort by the community-based Prologue Theatre Productions, a Hyde Park troupe whose shoestring budget hasn't kept them from finding enough talent to let a musical stand on its songs. Sacrificing scenery flats to a huge pink curtain and flying sets to props on hand-pushed platforms, this staging by Stephen Micotto, with musical direction by Anita Greenberg, puts the music center stage, and most of the two hours and 40 minutes it's for good reason.
Though her upper register turns harsh in Desiree's "Soon," Carol Kearney, looking much like Glynis Johns in the original production, finds a dark rich home in "Clowns" and proves how strong acting can make up for a limited vocal range. As her once and future lover, Fred Eberle ranges efficiently from the middle-aged naivete of "You Must Meet My Wife" to the middle-aged disillusionment of "It Would Have Been Wonderful." The others, not all born to sing this score, range from serviceable to strident, with the exceptions of Alyce Eysenbach as the resilient countess, a resourceful wife who with Mozartean finesse turns her husband's neglect into jealousy; Jamie Pachino as the hormone-happy parlor maid Petra; and Helen Bailey as Desiree's memory-crazed dowager mother, a role the late Hermione Gingold perfected and that eerily anticipates Seurat's mother in Sunday in the Park With George.
Duard Mosley's Alien Affections is a tired script with little future and a huge and dated past. Brandishing a 70s "life-style" consumer approach to the ins and outs of the mating game (and none of the wit or self-mockery of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, from which it only too clearly derives), Affections dwindles into a sincere but thuddingly obvious, choppily written, and cliche-ridden relationship play. It vaguely concerns two men, neither of whom can make a commitment--but for very opposite reasons. Stephen (John Sterchi), who thinks he knows and has what every woman wants, is a philandering pig who's doomed to stalk the singles scene in unwedded unbliss. Neurotic, wimpy Kevin (David Franks, overacting with crazed conviction) is desperate to get married (Kevin makes the same hysterical proposal, twice in vain, to three women during the play). But even with wife and son, this sad little narcissist doesn't know what he wants. At the end, Kevin unconvincingly says he'll try to make a go of it. But long before then, weighed down by inept apostrophes from Central Casting characters who tell but never show and numbed by blow-dried conflicts where every subtext is trotted out in the dialogue, we've ceased to care.
The playwright directed his own work, always a perilous undertaking, and one that ensured no necessary cut would be made in the finished product. If Alien Affections, with a name as generic as its script, had been about extraterrestrials, it couldn't have been less believable.