ROAD SHOW – November 1, 2008 The Public Theater

The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman revision of BOUNCE (which was a revision of WISE GUYS) now titled ROAD SHOW at the Public Theater –opening November 18, 2008 — can be summed up with this prescient line (no doubt meant as both an explanation and a joke on the paying public) uttered by Willy Mizner in the last few tedious moments of this incomprehensible production:

“One man’s mess is another man’s…
… something.”


This production — which according to a program note the creators have been working on for three years — has been mounted by the esteemed Sondheim interpreter of our century, John Doyle.  He designed the set as well.  As far as I can fathom, getting himself a scenic design credit was more important to him than directing a musical.

The scene is set and the set is seen upon entering the theatre.  In front of the exposed brick rear wall of the theatre is a mountain of various wooden office furniture, file cabinets, drawers and oddities.  I knew as soon as I saw it that at some point later in the show this mound of miscellany would somehow transform into a skyline.  I was not disappointed when the obvious occurred for no apparent reason at the end of the performance.  (So many things occur for no apparent reason in a John Doyle staging.)  Perhaps the set is meant to be a monument to something; however, it becomes a monumental stumbling block for the actors who have to act as mountaineers as they mount this monstrosity repeatedly and tote the furniture up it and down like sheepish sherpas.

John Doyle believes in “mounting a production” literally.

And the costumes seem to have maps printed on the fabric.  Get it?  ROAD – SHOW.  Thanks.

Why oh why does a theatre piece (already I am running out of words to use in the place of “musical” or “play” or “musical play” or even the dreaded “play with music”) titled ROAD SHOW evince ever so little show and even less road.  For a piece that purports to span decades of exciting American history shouldn’t I expect some movement?  Oh, there’s a lot of busy-ness but very little action.

Once again Mr. Doyle doesn’t fail me in showing his disdain for actors as well as for musicals.  But then this really isn’t a musical so I should stop my quibbling.  There is music and there are lyrics but the thing comes off as a dreary drama with incidental songs.  Songs you’ve heard before but here are now truncated.  It’s as if Sondheim is winnowing his work down to the barest of bare so there’s little to spark the imagination or make one care.  And the lyrics, well, not bad, I guess, but not Sondheim’s best, I fear.  During the prologue –which I suppose is meant to explain the confusing plot beforehand because the creators know we’ll be lost — one character sings this catchy phrase: “I’m the one that you fucked!”  There is a response from another character and then, again, “I’m the one that you fucked!” followed by the second character’s “You’re the one that I loved.”  Poetry be damned.  Is it wrong of me to expect more from Stephen Sondheim?  And at the end of this sepia-toned mishmash one brother sings to the other brother “Tell me that you love me!” and the brother responds something I can’t remember and then again from the first brother “Tell me that you love me!” and finally the insincere response “Okay, I love you.”  Then the first brother dies.

Their father dies.  This seems to set the play in motion — sends the brothers on their road, as it were.  If it only were.  There is no sense of who these people are.  At the outset the brothers seem to be a really bad comedy team imitating Laurel and Hardy with a sort of robotic scene of smacking each other with their hats.  (“It’s called a bowler hat” — remember that?)  They also seem to be children yet as soon as daddy dies and mommy — who seems to be some sort of maniac for money — inspires the brothers to move on (“stop worrying where you’re going, move on!”), the brothers must be at least in their late teens to dash off to the Yukon where we discover that one of them is “that way” in a cheap vaudeville getting – an – erection – while – sharing – a – sleeping – bag – with – his – brother scene played — get this — STANDING UP.  Luckily we only stay in the Yukon for about five minutes or maybe ten.  Then there’s more money throwing and more stagnant traveling on the mountain of furniture and the dead father watches.  Later the mother will die and one brother will pretend to hump her before he discovers she is dead.  A LOAD of laughs this.  This is when I realized that Sondheim’s PASSION is meant to be a riotous comedy about a sequestered and be-moled maniac with boundary issues.  After the mother dies, she continues to scale the furniture and stare at the “action” as if she cared.

There’s no sense of time or place.  The two brothers just keep stumbling on and making stupid mistakes, making money and losing it, snorting cocaine and drinking too much.  It seems to be some incest-tinged homosexual psychodrama.  Honestly, I don’t know.  But I do know that having the actors constantly fling sheaves of money skyward which then flutter down to the stage is just utter nonsense.  This happens at least twenty times — nicely on beat with the music, mind you, but just exactly why?  But then to the great director John Doyle as long as the actors are carrying something then it must be good.

The actors, god bless them and keep them, comport themselves well and professionally.  But they look lost most of the time.  They never get to let their voices soar which might just connect with us.  I’m sure that the real story of the Mizner brothers is interesting and exciting, but not in this humorless, colorless genre.

It tries to be Brecht, but it’s just vile.

10 Responses to “ROAD SHOW – November 1, 2008 The Public Theater”

  1. SemiBold Says:

    You are a wonderful writer! And that last line is pure poetry. Can’t wait to not see this show.

  2. the flaming curmudgeon Says:

    I’ll be sure to not buy you tickets as a gift!

  3. catskills grrl Says:

    “It tries to be Brecht, but it’s just vile.” — Oh, just got that about 30 seconds after I read it. You too funny.

  4. treehorne Says:

    Thank you. You perfectly encapsulated all my feelings on this show. I’ve been telling all my Sondheim loving friends to not see the show in memory of the Master’s career. (And I don’t think it was maps on the costumes…I saw close ups and I think they were blueprints as some looked very Frank Lloyd Wright-ish…because Maps would actually make sense and tie in with the title of the show, and blueprints adds another level of Doyle pretense)

  5. the flaming curmudgeon Says:

    @treehorne: Thank you. I was sitting in the second to last row and I wasn’t SURE what was on the costumes I just knew it was too literal and quite unnecessary. I forced myself to see the show because it may well be the last show we ever get from the master. I do wish people would stop hiring John Doyle.

  6. treehorne Says:


    I think I love you. (and what am I so afraid of?)

  7. the flaming curmudgeon Says:

    @treehorne: Are you toying with the Flaming Curmudgeon?

  8. treehorne Says:

    @flaming: so many answers to that. But truth – it’s so nice to hear someone else say what I’ve felt about Doyle from the start (was surprised that I enjoyed Catered Affair). And I swear your review of Road Kill mirrors what I would have written (but I’m jealous of the Brecht/Vile thang)

  9. the flaming curmudgeon Says:

    @treehorne: Thank you. I just don’t understand why people think he’s such a genius. We did better musicals in college than he does now. I treasure musicals and I don’t understand how people who have done them so well in the past seem not to remember a damn thing this time around. I still can’t get over my anger at PASSION. I do wish Doyle would go back to Merrie olde Englande and teach dramatic arts and diddle with schoolboys, as I’m sure he’s much better at that sort of thing than he is at directing Sondheim. I’m glad you’re jealous of the Brecht/Vile thing — it came to me like a bolt of lightning in the cab as I raced from the Public Theater.

  10. rockwell review Says:

    I actually enjoyed reading this write-up.Thank you.

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