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Sexual politics
Falsettos; Public Exposure

The march of Falsettos has been a long one. Before winning 1992 Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book, the quirky, engaging musical currently being revived by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the Boston University Theatre through June 26) had been part of a trilogy by composer William Finn, the first leg of which dates back to 1979, when In Trousers introduced protagonist Marvin, a New York Jewish neurotic struggling toward menschdom. Once Marvin came out of the closet, dragging a suitcase worth of self-absorption and high expectation, he became the likable if spoiled center of March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), which merged like a couple of banks to become Falsettos, a dawn-of-AIDS chamber musical that celebrates family values even as it pries open the Ike-age nuclear unit to admit new possibilities.

The big news at the Huntington is that Falsettos (with book by Finn and James Lapine) seems no more dated than Tony Kushner’s portrait of Reagan-era America undergoing a sexual sea change, Angels in America. Overseen by a young team of director Daniel Goldstein, choreographer Seán Curran, and musical director Michael Friedman, the stylish revival is bright, stylish, full of heart, and much less embarrassing than most of ’80s fashion. Moreover, the Huntington makes no effort to pull the show into the 21st century; you enter to find the date 1979 (when the events of the first half take place) looming larger than a Winnebago. Two years pass and act two opens on bowling-pin-like totems larger than the actors that spell out 1981.

Finn is usually mentioned among the Sondheim inheritors, and he could be charged with a CUI (Composing Under the Influence). But he has an original, idiosyncratic voice whose range stretches from melodious ballads draped over jumpy orchestration to novelty numbers with surprising, asymmetrical rhythms. Falsettos opens with a number featuring Marvin and the men in his life — lover Whizzer, son Jason, and psychiatrist Mendel — that’s called "Four Jews in a Room Bitching." "March of the Falsettos" has the same quartet — done up at the Huntington in Cub Scout–like little blue uniforms — stepping jauntily, if mechanically, toward nowhere, hoping to land by accident at maturity. "Send In the Clowns" these eccentric ditties are not.

In act one, Marvin has recently left wife Trina and 11-year-old son Jason for Whizzer. Sent to Marvin’s shrink for a little handholding, Trina finds the guy offering more than his professional services. Eventually the couples realign — though not before Trina gets a bravura chance to come unglued in "I’m Breaking Down." At the Huntington, this showstopper is hilariously performed by honey-voiced Linda Mugleston, who goes from chopping phallic foodstuffs with the angry abandon of Lorena Bobbitt crossed with the Iron Chef to climbing atop her oversized counter for a little splay-knee’d hoof in the flour. The cartoon effervescence of the choreography combined with the character’s genuine moment of crisis is emblematic of the production’s mix of the goofy and the heartfelt, its embrace that reaches from Borscht Belt to Stonewall.

But Finn is as much a sentimentalist as a satirist, and at the core of Falsettos is Marvin’s struggle to "have a tight-knit family," "a group that harmonizes." In particular, he wants to maintain a fatherly relation to his confused and withdrawn chess-whiz son, whose plaintive "My Father’s a Homo" holds, along with droll understatement, seeds of self-doubt. By the first-act curtain, there’s been melodrama ranging from the petulant storms of passion and threat between Marvin and Whizzer to Marvin’s outburst at Trina for daring to trade his memory for a roll on Mendel’s couch. But father and son are sweetly reconciled.

That is, until, following a sunny Central Park number in which the dramatis personae watch "Jewish boys/Who cannot play baseball/Play baseball," act two brings the dissolution of the truce between Marvin and Trina. As the two fight over Jason’s upcoming bar mitzvah, Whizzer is stricken by a disease without a name. "Bachelors arrive sick and frightened/They leave, weeks later, unenlightened," sings Dr. Charlotte, half of "the lesbians next door" who have become part of Marvin’s extended family, in "Something Bad Is Happening." Disease, of course, has a way of bringing out the love in people, and that’s what happens here as Marvin learns to see past his myopia and a "tight little band" celebrates "The Miracle of Judaism," complete with "nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine" for 200, in a hospital room where, as you might expect, miracles are a no-show.

The Huntington production negotiates Falsettos’ arc from discordant to poignant, solipsistic to united, with Curran’s choreography (everything from soft shoe to awkward approximations of Chubby Checker) providing a burst of the madcap. Zooming in and out to provide windows on the world (and on Manhattan), set designer David Korins’s deep-red-toned geometric panels contribute to the continuity of the production. Oddments like a skewed picture of Freud and a blow-up from a romance comic wittily anchor various locales, with oversized white furniture rolling in and out as needed.

Geoffrey Nauffts is almost too self-effacing a Marvin; he hardly seems the magnet at the middle of the mishegas. He’s better at quiet reflection than in the face-offs, but he milks all the nectar from sweeter numbers like "Father and Son." Romain Frugé’s smoldering Whizzer, no shallow boy toy, swallows him in the confrontations. Anne L. Nathan, as Dr. Charlotte, and Kate Baldwin, as her caterer partner, provide warmth and harmony. And seventh-grader Jacob Brandt, wearing spectacles designed for a much larger person, captures both the shlubby adolescent and the wounded wise child in Jason. He sings well too, holding his own in an accomplished ensemble that mostly leaves the falsetto stuff to Jean Valjean.

A less innocent age — now — is invoked in Robert Reich’s Public Exposure (at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through June 18). The former US labor secretary and Maurice Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University has written a broad satire set at the ridiculous junction of national politics, television celebrity, and the Republican zeitgeist that, midway through, can’t figure out where its outrageous premise should take it. But the build-up is a lot funnier than Reich’s nine tomes on politics and the economy. His motivation: "No sane person can write seriously about American politics and economics without an occasional outburst like this."

Bill Humphrey is a puffed-up talk-show host dedicated to pulling himself up by his American-eagle-worthy right wing. Irma Sunquist, a political consultant and Bill’s former squeeze, appears on his show, The Naked Truth, to help him lambaste the left. She thinks Bill ought to run for president against a left-leaning Democratic senator and "frequent visitor to France." Also prominent are a television-huckstering plastic surgeon, Roy, and the much-carved-upon bimbo wife, Sandy, who is his "floor model." But Bill has a couple of secrets, and they are not Monica Lewinsky. First, he has a "directionally challenged" digit that, disastrously for his ideology, veers left. (The plastic surgeon is working on that.) Worse, like some perverse combination of Bill O’Reilly and the open-trenchcoat-clad Mr. Vanislaw of Betty’s Summer Vacation, he likes to put his organ on display. Suddenly The Naked Truth’s mantra — "We expose. You watch." — seems prescient.

But (and this is at least part of Reich’s point) given a quixotic press, you never know how anything will be spun. As Irma explains to Sandy, "Sweetie, there are only two stories in American politics. One is ‘Oh the shame of it.’ The other is ‘Oh the wonder of it.’ Sometimes you can’t tell which it’s gonna be. The media decides." And the media declare Bill’s act of public exposure a pubic profile in courage. "Finally," they crow in absurd approval, "a politician with absolutely nothing to hide."

At tiny Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where Gip Hoppe directs a cast of five, with a painted audience of hundreds staring from the back wall of the set, this pundits’ championing of the flashing Republican leads to a surprisingly soaring climax as, with cameras flashing, flags waving, "God Bless America" blasting, and a cross between Dolly Parton and Betsy Ross inciting the crowd, Humphrey accepts his party’s nomination bare but for shoes and socks. This ends the first act of Reich’s script, though Hoppe has telescoped the second and removed the intermission (which lessens the power of the delirious climax), probably because he sensed the rest was rather like air being let out of a comic balloon.

In this format, Public Exposure runs barely over an hour, but the first 40 minutes or so — which Hoppe pumps up by adding noir-derived vamping to Reich’s crazy mix of seduction and sedition — are very funny. And so is the Wellfleet cast, though Robert Kropf lacks the middle-aged gravitas Reich envisions in Bill Humphrey, substituting instead a bored, boyish narcissism and a naked sense of showmanship. As the Law & Order–esque Naked Truth theme music cues them, both Kropf’s Humphrey and Stacy Fischer’s sexy-pundit Irma turn on dimes from studio bickering to on-air posturing. (Here Hoppe polishes skills honed on his own A New War.) As Sandy, who morphs from moldee to molder when she takes up with Irma, Laura Latreille abandons shrill vacuity for beginners’ political savvy. Michael Dorval is all smug opportunism as plastic surgeon Ray — a vet to whom no true political animal would resort. The characters are cartoons, of course, and resident set designer Dan Joy contributes amusingly to the strip. As for Reich’s script, it’s longer than a sketch but shorter than a play and, however exasperated the writer, more in the spirit of Saturday Night Live than Jonathan Swift.

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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