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A CurtainUp Review

By Kathryn Osenlund

Embarrassments, a new musical by Laurence Klavan and Polly Pen has its World Premiere at the Wilma Theater. Directed by co-Artistic Director Blanka Zizka it is about a failed attempt of major nineteenth century novelist Henry James to become a successful playwright. It is also one of the most interesting, ambitious, and impressive theatrical failures that I have seen.

Despite a fine production aesthetic, effortless scene changes, and a tempo as good as the subject matter allows, the Wilma's first commissioned piece fights a losing battle for coherence. The structure, resembling James's prose with its endless subordinate clauses, is just damned confusing. Yet, as in James's writing, there is something compelling and indefinable floating above the text.

A framing play encompasses a double play-within-a-play. A nervous Henry James does not attend the opening night of his own play, Guy Domville, but instead composes a story, visits a number of places, and attends the theater, seeingAn Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, his polar opposite. The play is not shown, but is represented by Oscar Wilde delivering bon mots. Parallel to these activities, and for most of the evening, we are shown parts of what we come to realize is a short story Henry James is composing, Nona Vincent. It contains its own framing story within which a play takes place. As for Guy Domville, the principal play being treated within the larger frame of Embarrassments, we see activities around the edges, but none of the actual play.

The evening gets off to a slow start with an expository song meant to fill everyone in on what's happening and to provide an introduction to James's sensibility. Still, the number has its high points. Henry James sings of his play, "This perfect little gem, this slice of my soul, waiting for the huge flat foot of the public." In the role of James, Henry Stram, known in New York for his work in The Crucible among other roles, is remarkable. He looks the picture of Henry James and acts with a creative mix of nerves, control, humor, and discipline infused with James's depth and stillness.

A few scenes stand out. James visits his publisher, Wolcott, and notices a gesture between Wolcott and his wife, Jenny. In a theatrical moment that is quite wonderful he fantasizes about bringing the gesture to the stage. The lyrics are just right. The lighting is precise and elegant. Another standout is an adorable early number in which female cast members complain that the Violet Grey role (Jennifer Lyon) " should be me," and male cast members think that Grey's attentions should be theirs. A third fine scene, and the only consistently funny part of the musical, finds James sitting in a row with his fellow audience members watching An Ideal Husband. The space hogging, criticizing, and carrying on are hilarious.

Most of the musical fails to transcend the inherent difficulties, demonstrating how hard it is to translate James to the stage. Two cases in point: Key scenes of Wayworth with his patron, Mrs. Alsager are painstaking Jamesian creations, which unfortunately leak any potentially dramatic possibilities all over the stage as they are played and repeated. In a clunky number at the end characters urge James to "put us down in prose," go back to writing fiction.

The problems lie with the concept and the writing. The acting, singing, and direction can't be faulted, and the costumes are magnificent.

James Sugg gives a wonderful performance as the engaging Wayworth, the Henry James alter ego character within Nona Vincent. Actor Sugg is the composer and award-winning sound designer who played James Joyce in the amazing James Joyce is Dead and So is Paris with Pig Iron last spring. Jesse Tyler Ferguson brings a bright, lively presence to his characters, among which are a waiter and Wolcott. Jennie Eisenhower sings a fine Jenny among other roles. Michael X. Martin is well cast as George Alexander, the bombastic lead actor opening in James's play, and Ann Morrison handles the difficult role of Mrs. Alsager with grace.

Embarrassments' music is of the too-long fashionable wallpaper variety-- pleasant, show-specific, and not designed to make a lasting impression. The fresh, different, specifically imagined lyrics often suffer from the very preciosity that doomed James's effort as he tried to stage "the war between what's thought and said, the war inside my head." Some lyrics are marvelous, but in a few cases they are obtuse and actually annoying. It's precious, cerebral, formal and restrained, inviting the question: Do the writer/lyricists become so imbued with the spirit of Henry James that they no longer can discern when they themselves are falling into the same traps that plagued James? In a decisive and smart move, the show was pared from two acts and an intermission to 90 minutes, but this is not enough to rescue the show, which remains unwieldy.

The Wilma and several other Philadelphia theaters mount new productions that are not the done deals found at so many venues. Commissioning and staging this work about the impossibility of staging Henry James was worth the effort even if a subdued audience may leave grumbling at the end of the evening. Taking chances keeps theatre viable.
Book by Laurence Klavan, Music by Polly Penn, Lyrics by Klavan and Penn
Directed by Blanka Zizka

Cast: Henry Stram, Michael X. Martin, Jesse Taylor Ferguson, Ann Morrison, James Sugg, Jennie Eisenhower, Jennifer Lyon, Mary Martello
Set Design: Christine Jones
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz
Sound Design: Bill Moriarty
Musical Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrator: Bruce Coughlin
Choreographer: Andrew Simonet
Musicians: Mary-Mitchell Campbell, John Welte, Patricia Brown, Anthony Pirollo Running time: 90 mins, no intermission 11/26/03 - 01/04/04
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 12/5 performance at the Wilma Theater

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