Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What keeps Assassins alive?

The talented cast of Assassins at the New Rep. Photos: Andrew Brilliant.

Before I knew it, the New Rep's Assassins had closed, and I had never given it full consideration while it was still on the boards. Of course Hub Review regulars know that I usually dawdle when I'm torn about something - and I was certainly of two minds about Assassins.

For I've never been much of a fan of this late Sondheim show (and three exposures to it have done little to change my opinion).  Indeed, to me it marks the moment when Steve jumped the shark; but many of the master's fans feel otherwise - the New Rep's Jim Petosa is clearly enamored with it, and to be honest, I had little argument with his production. It amounted to a kind of refinement of the version he mounted at BU a year or two ago; that was strong, but this was stronger still.

But the production still wasn't strong enough to put over the musical's book, which is a botch no matter which way you read it - because author John Weidman's concept is simply unconvincing. Weidman wants to find a common rubric linking America's many actual and would-be assassins - and he seems to think he has found it in our national obsession with identity and celebrity, and the way they're now tied together in a kind of pop-psychological noose. Basically Weidman's assassins all pull the trigger to escape being a nobody, to actualize themselves on the public stage.

Which may be an absolutely accurate analysis of the American public - but not, oddly, of its assassins. Indeed, the first successful American assassin - and a central player in Weidman's script - all but refutes his thesis: John Wilkes Booth was a matinee idol (one newspaper dubbed him "the handsomest man in America") well before he gunned down President Lincoln in 1865.  So it wasn't a need for celebrity that drove him to do the deed - it was his obsessive sympathy with the Southern cause (and no doubt his racism).

At the other end of the celebrity spectrum is Lee Harvey Oswald, who serves as a kind of bookend to Wilkes in the show (and floats through other vignettes like an alien troubadour), but who is even less convincing as an avatar of Weidman's concept.  Whatever you think happened in Dallas on that fateful day in 1963, Oswald was clearly some sort of spook embedded in various hidden political and criminal networks. So it's impossible to buy him as the weird-but-innocent victim of the cosmic conspiracy Weidman conjures here. Indeed, the entire closing scene of Assassins is flat-out idiotic - and only a historical and political illiterate could buy it.

Which, of course, is exactly what Sondheim and Weidman are banking on. The effects of political and economic oppression contributed heavily to the mindsets of many, if not most, of our assassins (like Giuseppe Zangara, who shot at FDR but killed Chicago's mayor instead), and sometimes directly motivated their murderous impulses (as in the case of Leon Czologosz, an anarchist whose assassination of President McKinley was basically a copycat killing).

But Weidman never really ponders the differing political contexts that drove his characters to murder; his is a Broadway baby's view of American history - and of course that's his audience's view, too.  And to be fair, his show-biz tunnel vision works fairly well for a few of his killers, such as the vicious but inept "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, for whom Weidman devises blackly comic vignettes that play like a nasty sitcom-on-acid.  But elsewhere we can feel the author simply grinding his wheels, because he has no real purchase on the historical record.

The astral-assassin plane reaches out to Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins.

It's even hard to argue that an obsession with celebrity is driving current threats against our President (racism, disguised or admitted, is just too obviously a factor here). But Weidman's concept does resonate in a different way - it would probably be perfect for a show about the many mass murderers of the millennium. You know, the Columbine wannabes - the men (they're always men, and usually white ones) who after stockpiling weapons for years, suddenly spray a matinee of Batman with round after round from an Uzi - and who more often than not, after the climactic scene of the demented movie they're directing in their heads, turn their guns on themselves.

This is actually why Assassins won't die - not because it's an artistic success on its own terms, but because it indirectly taps our fears about this parallel American phenomenon: the lone gunman who might be waiting for any of us at the mall or the movies. And the New Rep production was most gripping when it resonated with that unspoken context - as when Benjamin Evett, as the musical's "Proprietor" (here styled as Uncle Sam by way of Kander & Ebb) began handing out pistols to the damaged and deranged like so much Halloween candy.

And thankfully throughout the production there were performances skillful enough to distract us from the gaps in the material itself.  Evett handled himself well (although vocally he was more stretched by Sondheim's demands than he was by those of Camelot), and Mark Linehan made a convincingly stentorian madman of John Wilkes Booth; there were also compelling cameos from Harrison Bryan and Peter S. Adams as Giuseppe Zangara and Samuel Byck (would-be killers of FDR and Nixon, respectively), and Brad Daniel Peloquin as an insanely fey Charles Guiteau (the assassin of President Garfield). Even more intriguing was newcomer Evan Gambardella's spooky turn as Lee Harvey Oswald - this young performer was able to hold us through the worst of Weidman's hooey. But I was perhaps most taken with Paula Langton's Sara Jane Moore and McCaela Donovan's "Squeaky" Fromme.  Langton gave Moore the right scarily ditzy spin, but Donovan dug deeper - her "Squeaky" came from a truly desolate place, and her duet with John Hinckley (the effective Patrick Varner) was probably the high point of the show (partly because "Unworthy of Your Love" is Sondheim's strongest contribution to one of his lesser scores).

I also can't fault the evocative design, costumes and lighting.  I only wish I could have recommended the show itself!  Sigh.  I'm afraid in the end Assassins only makes me long for the day when our theatre can directly address the pressing issues of the moment. And I admit I'm also afraid that day may never come.  So something tells me another production of Assassins can't be far off . . .

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