Alliance Theatre Company
at the Avalon Niteclub
The thing about explorers, notes Marvin, the hero of William Finn's In Trousers, is that they discover things that are already there. Marvin is a discoverer who stumbles across a new world he wasn't even looking for: his homosexuality. When a nice Jewish boy like Marvin has done everything he was expected to, including getting married and raising a child, and then realizes he's gay, he's finding something that was always there; suddenly a host of nagging doubts have a name, all the questions have an answer. But that doesn't make it any easier on Marvin, or his wife.
Almost any gay man has gone through what Marvin goes through in In Trousers. Even if there hasn't been a wife, there's inevitably a girlfriend who's been hurt, and the sense of failure and guilt that goes with the experience can be unbearable. But such situations, as intense as they are in real life, rarely translate effectively into good art; the specifics of the story tend to reduce the emotions involved to melodramatic bathos.
In In Trousers, the 1979 "prequel" to Finn's better-known March of the Falsettos, the author-composer approaches his tale from an unusual angle. In fact, In Trousers is all angles. Nothing is ever approached head-on; there are no direct confrontations or confessions, no big "moments" of realization. Marvin's marital breakup and sexual self-discovery is recounted in a series of songs that trace the feelings produced by events, not the events themselves--though those events are clear through the songs.
Though the Alliance Theatre, which is giving the work its Chicago debut, describes In Trousers as a musical, it's really more of a song cycle or a cantata; the solos, duets, trios, and quartets are delivered to the audience presentationally, and there is no dialogue. And, in Finn's cleverest and boldest stroke, in this piece about a man's discovery that he loves other men, there are no other male characters. Though Marvin refers to his offstage lover Whizzer, the people who crowd his consciousness are three women: his wife, of course, and two female figures from his high school years. The first of these is the high school sweetheart (she has no other name) who pines for a passion Marvin is incapable of; the other is Miss Goldberg, his dynamic earth-mother-cum-sex-goddess history teacher and the object of his one great adolescent heterosexual lust (it's only a phase).
It is through the devices of Miss Goldberg that In Trousers is given its central metaphor: she produces a historical pageant on the story of Christopher Columbus, with the ever-willing teacher's pet Marvin in the role of Chris. Finn's fragmented narrative juxtaposes the step-by-step breakup of Marvin's marriage (from high hopefulness to ennui to the wife's discovery of Marvin's sex life) with Marvin's dreamlike memories of high school. In the Columbus pageant that hilariously climaxes In Trousers, Isabella--Miss Goldberg, natch--sends her fickle lover Chris off on a ship with other "known homosexuals"; he discovers the New World and names it not for Isabella, as he had promised, but for his boyfriend, Amerigo Vespucci!
In Trousers has plenty of such wacky humor as it probes Marvin's overwrought imagination, but it's contrasted with genuinely affecting passages as Marvin and the ladies who haunt his memory sing Finn's delicate and quirky songs (which start out too derivative of Stephen Sondheim but find their own style about midway through). There is at least one first-rate beautiful ballad, "Love Me for What I Am": "I'm a person who likes to lie too much / I try too much / To impress other people / Often my inferiors . . ." And Marvin's wife has a fine turn in her breakdown song, presented as a vaudeville number.
Intimate, decorous, and wryly funny, In Trousers is perfectly suited to a cabaret setting, and that's where it's being done by the Alliance Theatre--in the Avalon (former site of Tut's and the fabled Quiet Knight). The stage isn't a whole lot larger than a postage stamp, and the actors nearly fall onto the audience at moments, but that's all part of the charm. Where In Trousers falls short, unfortunately, is in the key performance of Logan Bazar as Marvin. Bazar is simply an inadequate singer--he forces his notes and almost never connects with the words he's singing. And the petulant, swishy air he adopts makes it difficult to accept the idea that Marvin's homosexuality comes as a surprise to anyone: Bazar affects the worst stereotypes associated with being gay. Worst of all--and the other actors are also guilty of this, though less intrusively--Bazar sings at the audience, not to us. The direction, credited to Sheila J. Wurmser and Edward Kerros, aims at stylization in the performances but too often settles for just mugging; Scott Sandoe's musical staging is both cluttered and limp. The only really secure performance comes from Sara Minton as Miss Goldberg--her bravura belt and her clean and confident gestures never go too far in a medium--cabaret theater--where less is definitely more. Music director Jack Short must share with the singers the blame for the sloppy ensemble phrasing. Robert Van Tornhout's set design, on the other hand, is delightful--white panels brightly decorated with strokes of primary colors in an abstract expressionist style that complements the abstractness with which In Trousers tells its story.