Thursday, March 22, 2012

Next to Normal at SpeakEasy Stage

Diana (Kerry A. Dowling) ponders her private cast of characters.

While I was watching Next to Normal (at Speakeasy Stage through April 15), I unexpectedly found myself reminded over and over again of the essay On Bullshit, by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt (below), that was published during the Bush administration.  Remember it?  If you didn't read it then, you definitely should now.  Wikipedia sums up the little black book's argument thus:

Frankfurt defines a theory of bullshit, defining the concept and analyzing its applications . . . Bullshit can either be true or false but bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements (it is because of this that Frankfurt concedes that "the bullshitter is faking things", but that "this does not necessarily mean he gets them wrong"). 

While liars need to know the truth to better conceal it, bullshitters, interested solely in advancing their own agendas, have no use for the truth. Thus, Frankfurt claims, "...bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

And you know, I can't help it - that paragraph just seems to sum up for me the apparent attitudes of the makers of Next to Normal.  You can tell they have no real interest in their putative themes (mental illness and psychopharmacology) because they relentlessly distort and twist the salient facts about the topic to suit their need for cheap sentimental effects.   And they have no real interest in creating music to match  the rawness of the pain they pretend they're illuminating, either - the score of Next to Normal is another mediocre entry (rippling, vulnerable arpeggios and all) in the growing genre of gay-pop/rock-musical-whatever-the-hell-this-stuff is.  Seriously, what can we call this weird hybrid?  "Show 'rock'"? "Broadway 'pop'"?  I have no idea - all I know is, while posing as the kind of music that used to pride itself on authenticity, it is entirely inauthentic.  Yup, I'd say there's no argument; the perpetrators of Next to Normal just want to impress an audience, and persuade it that their ersatz musical is fabulous.  In a word, they're bullshitters.

I know, I know; by now everybody at SpeakEasy, and all the people who have listened to the Next to Normal CD long enough to convince themselves it's great, are jumping up and down and calling for my blood.  So rest assured, I don't mean that this production is a piece of you-know-what; far from it!  Minute to minute, Next to Normal is almost too carefully considered and crafted, and SpeakEasy Stage, as usual, has done the show up to the nines; everything about it has been buffed to a high sheen - which, I admit, has its own kind of entertainment value, like the glossy vacuum of Glee.  This show is hardly a piece of you-know-what; it is instead a dazzling, top-of-the-line piece of - well, what Dr. Frankfurt said!

And I admit this makes it unremarkable; indeed, there has for years been a rising tide of bullshit in the American theatre.  When Frankfurt wrote his book, people took his diatribe as a veiled jab at George W. Bush, and his administration's reckless disregard for the truth [the essay was far older, just btw].  But something about Bush's mendacity and general moral turpitude somehow seeped into the cultural groundwater anyhow; bullshit became our new baseline, even for people who hated the Republicans and everything they stood for.  It has slowly come clear that if you're not at least partly bullshitting your audience, the culture just can't take you seriously anymore.

Needless to say, theatrical artists have complied with this new cultural directive (some have done so kicking and screaming, but just about everyone has gone along).  Indeed, directors like Diane Paulus now sniff openly at integrity and moral value in the theatre; plays shouldn't be seen as "good for you, like vitamins," Ms. P. recently snorted to an interviewer.   (She may have been briefly slowed down by Stephen Sondheim over Porgy and Bess, but she knows full well that in a few years Sondheim will be history, and no one else has the power to stop her.) But then I can't pretend Paulus is an outlier; she's our most consummate bullshit artist, certainly, but then the vast majority of new plays I've seen in the past few years have been bullshit to varying degrees; Red, Bakersfield Mist, anything recent by Paula Vogel, and everything by Sarah Ruhl or Jordan Harrison, Captors, Before I Leave You, Three Pianos, Next Fall - they've all been bullshit, more or less.  They're not crafted to reflect the way we live now, or to hold the mirror up to nature, much less challenge us with some brave new vision or a call to arms (this is what makes Mike Daisey a liar, btw, but not actually a bullshitter).  In fact they generally tiptoe around the actual controversies of our day, and are designed to fill a certain cultural space, to triangulate between an audience's prejudices and received attitudes, and then simulate a theatrical experience in a canned, controlled fashion, with a callous disregard for integrity, honesty, or even any connection to actual life.  This is what we see more often than not at the "theatre" today.  We see bullshit. It's the new normal.

So back to Next to Normal, which as you've gleaned by now I feel is artistically dishonest in just about every way it is possible for a musical to be artistically dishonest.  (Indeed, I can almost admire its purity.) Take, for instance, its portrayal of mental illness - a topical theme, you'd think, if ever there was one!  Librettist Brian Yorkey posits a tormented heroine, unhappy suburban mom Diana (Kerry A. Dowling) whom he first presents as bipolar - we see some manic episodes, but at the same time Diana claims to be severely depressed.  Is she experiencing one of those occasionally-observed "mixed episodes"?  Perhaps.  But wait - the symptom merry-go-round is only just gearing up.   (SPOILER ALERT.)  We eventually discover that Diana is not only bipolar, but also delusional (she believes a child that died in infancy is still alive, sixteen years later) and even is experiencing constant hallucinations (she sees and hears the kid, too - only not as a baby but as the teen-ager she imagines he would have become - we've been seeing him too, btw, and at first imagined he was a character, rather than one of those imaginary friends from thirtysomething).

For Diana, life is a tango with her psychopharmacologist. Photo(s) Craig Bailey/Perspective Photos.
Okay.  You can make an excuse for each separate part of this diagnosis, but as an operative disorder it makes little sense - and the idea that Diana could be depending on Prozac and Wellbutrin, with apparently no talk therapy or seeming support, when she has been enduring something like a full-bore psychotic break for some sixteen years is, well, kind of ridiculous.  What's even more ridiculous is the way her horrifying family is portrayed - they know full well that Mom is hallucinating as she careens around the bipolar roller coaster, yet they whine if she doesn't make lunch or pick them up after school, and hubby couldn't be happier as long as he gets his daily roll in the hay.

But wait, it gets better.  Diana endures shock treatment (which is, actually, once more an accepted treatment for severe depression that is unresponsive to medication), and for a while Yorkey is on somewhat more solid ground, as his plot begins to revolve around whether or not Diana will remember her earlier delusions (there's controversy over how often memory loss results from electro-convulsive therapy).  But once her symptoms have returned (oh no!) Yorkey has his heroine decide that she is damaged in her "soul," not her "mind," and so she quits treatment entirely - and even walks out on her family.

And in a word - WRONG (or rather: Bullshit!!).  This is absolutely the worst thing a person with mixed bipolar disorder (much less Diana's laundry list of symptoms) could ever do.  To be blunt, if someone like Diana dropped out of her treatment program, and abandoned all forms of social support, she would most likely be babbling on the street, or even dead, within weeks.  Yet Next to Normal presents this virtual suicide as a brave new day for Diana, even as Yorkey's book guides her husband toward (you guessed it!) psychopharmacology.  Right.  I guess he saw how well it worked for his wife. Seriously, this musical makes no sense whatsoever, and in its moronic rock-anthem romance, it's creepy and kind of dangerous.  I mean, there is certainly a valid satire to be made (by someone else!) of the claims of psychopharmacology; but please, people with any kind of emotional disorder - do not see this musical, much less ponder its message!

And just btw, on a purely artistic level, Next to Normal is rather obviously (and cynically) stitched together from various known quantities - it's one part Ordinary People to two parts The Who's Tommy.  The lyrics are sometimes clever, I admit - but they're not actually great lyrics, that is to say they lack that inner poetry that sparks melodic response. And Tom Kitt's score is, if anything, even more derivative than the book.  People have been claiming this music counts as a break-through - but how, I wonder?  (Because it shifts from derivative keyboard arpeggios to derivate guitar hooks?)  There have already been plenty of solid rock musicals - a short list would include Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and his Amazing Etc., Grease, The Who's Tommy, and maybe American Idiot (I haven't seen it, but I remember the album was good).  It's worth noting that most of these are actually staged cantatas (or even oratorios) rather than organic musicals; rock seems to sit mostly easily in the album format, around which dramatic structures can be contrived (hence that other, even more popular genre, the "jukebox musical").  Working the other way, from the stage to the rock score, seems to be problematic - but frankly, Next to Normal is no milestone in that ongoing endeavor.  And can just a few of our middle-aged (or older) critics finally admit that rock is no longer culturally ascendant, and so is essentially a nostalgic musical mode, just like the best of Tin Pan Alley?  I'd appreciate it.

Anyway, when I said earlier that this production was a strong one - well, maybe I was bullshitting a little bit there myself; I actually don't think this represents SpeakEasy at its best.  The physical production is striking, thanks to SeĆ”ghan McKay's slick projections, Jeff Adelberg's smoothly shifting lighting, and Eric Levenson's sleek set - and the band sounds tight under Nicholas James Connell's direction.  But some cast members, such as Michael Tacconi (who plays the ghostly son) are often pushed to the edge of their range (and Tacconi doesn't really have the requisite charisma to operate as a deadly psychological siren, either).  Likewise Christopher Chew is a bit bland as Diana's clueless hubby, as is Michael Levesque as her daughter's stoner boyfriend.  Elsewhere the news is better: as said daughter, newcomer Sarah Drake is probably the stand-out of the cast (and she gets one of the best of the so-so songs), while Chris Caron does have fun as the comically sinister psychopharmacologist.   Meanwhile, as the tormented Diana, Kerry A. Dowling offers a subtle and sympathetic characterization (and she's certainly up to the role's vocal challenges) - but Dowling is basically miscast, as she's naturally a hearty, healthy presence, and so can't summon much in the way of tortured mojo to cover the script's contrivances (as Alice Ripley reportedly did on Broadway).  Still, Dowling's the real thing, and without her, I sometimes felt this production would have amounted to next to nothing.

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