Last week's Supreme Court one-two punch -- Gee, black folks, aren't you over that racism thing yet? Hey, gays, I guess you're kind of like real people -- must have the producers of the new musical Far From Heaven congratulating themselves on their prescience. The play, like the iconic Todd Haynes film from which it was adapted, juxtaposes the plight of those very groups still fighting for a seat at America's big-boy table.
Haynes' 2002 movie was a meta homage to '50s-era melodrama, an arty cerebral take on the filter through which societal transgressions were viewed in the repressive days of old. Its Sirkian lush excess unspooled in ironic contrast to the characters' circumscribed lives; its suppressed hysteria echoed the need to quash those messy human impulses. The movie had a flat affectless tone, thawed by the Technicolor splendor of its visuals and a nearly perfect cast: Julianne Moore, a genius at simultaneously sending up cartoon caricatures while making them achingly real; Dennis Haysbert, transforming a sexless saintly role into something believable and romantic; the fizzy cocktail of cool, wry and warm that is Patricia Clarkson; and Dennis Quaid -- well, Dennis was a mess from his first breath, but even though his character had no subtext or arc, the actor left an indelible impression of desire and the annihilating self-loathing that desire provoked.
Slipping such a chilly, intellectually stylized piece into the literal, earnest, decidedly unsubtle clothes of musical theater would seem to present a challenge. Once the forces behind FFH: The Musical elected to take that challenge -- imagine what David Cromer could have done! -- they apparently chose not to reinvent the piece for its new medium but instead to mirror the film's surface aspects while minimizing its narrative strengths. Haynes played the different societal tensions against one another -- the racism and oppression of women an open secret, the homophobia a buried one -- building to a tragic crescendo for its interracial soul mates while unexpectedly granting its gay spouse a blissful escape. By contrast, the (predominantly gay male) creative team behind the play don't seem much interested in its closeted husband, reducing homosexuality to seamy stereotypical trysts to be briefly flashed to before quick fade-outs, or underscored as sinister with an overwrought clankiness that borders on camp. Nor does the relationship between cuckolded wife Kelli O'Hara and "Magical Negro" gardener Isaiah Johnson get enough heat or oxygen to be emotionally compelling; there's as little chemistry between the actors as between O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, a married couple who seem barely to have met. The striking song in which O'Hara rails against her invisibility in a storybook existence -- listing the mundane details of her daily life her husband has witnessed without actually seeing -- would have been devastating if we felt any connection between the two; so would his infidelity and ultimate flight. Perhaps it was a deliberate creative decision to keep these two gifted and charismatic performers from forging any bond; their forthcoming coupling in Broadway's Bridges of Madison County may shed some light on what might have been.
This FFH does have excesses: a too-large, underused cast, including this season's not always winning trend, child actors; clunky set pieces that crowd the stage, around which the actors are rushed as if the play won't hold the audience's attention if they don't keep moving; a score that bypasses lyricism for dense aridity (and one wince-inducing attempt at "naughtiness"). Quincy Tyler Bernstine's maid, another selfless black woman who (unlike her film predecessor) has no opinions about her boss's interracial trespass, doesn't even get a song. Her invisibility is not ironic.
There's a different kind of clichéd black maid in Christopher Durang's Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but Shalita Grant's Cassandra is given considerably more agency and effect on her costars. Another gay-straight combo platter that seems to have little interest in its gay, Vanya is an inexplicably satisfying piece of feel-good entertainment that chiefly succeeds, I think, because it gives each character (and actor) a chance to shine.
Vanya is conspicuous in what it doesn't have: a conventional plot, moral or lesson, a need to punish its misbehaving players or do anything except entertain its audience, a love interest for its gay male or African-American female characters. Like Alec Baldwin (in his role as actor, not raging id), who spins monstrous insincerity into comedy gold, Sigourney Weaver sheaths every utterance in quotes; her Masha has a lightness and ebullience that spills over across the entire production. Kristine Nielsen's Sonia, who early on reveals a promisingly lunatic crush on David Hyde Pierce's Vanya (her brother; well, adopted brother; well, gay adopted brother...), sees that thread dropped in favor of repeatedly hitting the same woebegone note. Yet Durang lets her unleash a superb, goofy Maggie Smith impression that levitates her character and releases us from the gloom of her existence, at least for a time. Pierce too, though essentially a servant ministering to his castmates physically and emotionally, is given his moment of transcendence: an aria of contemporary frustration that implodes the artifice of the play; if we're hearing the author's rather than the character's thoughts, they're delivered via such an artistically skilled vessel we don't care -- we can't resist. And Billy Magnussen's Spike, the deliciously immodest pleasure-seeking slab of unself-conscious meat, sparks the play to life, with a propulsive comic energy that never flags. Even when Weaver lets go of the helium balloon of his company, she remains alight, and so do we.
It will be interesting to see how the balance of Vanya shifts with Julie White taking over for Weaver. White, a prickly presence with wondrous comic timing, has drifted from her early thrilling performances to ones that lean a bit heavily on shtick, interacting less with her costars than with her own sense of herself. Her introduction is sure to alter Vanya's fragile balance dramatically, but whether for good or bad remains to be seen.
Another potentially dramatic cast change will come when David Abeles slips into Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 creator Dave Malloy's shoes. Like Heaven, Natasha's sung-through story prefers meta-intellectual tropes to romantic convention, but it complements the headiness with self-mocking wit and occasional gorgeous ballads -- its maid sings a love song to her mistress that is the show's heart-stopping high point, seconded by Pierre's climactic epiphany regarding the disgraced Natasha. Malloy, a gifted writer, eschews the menacing or rageful notes that would have made his ultimate transformation to empathy more striking; perhaps Abeles will imbue his portrayal with darker hues to set off the final burst of light. Natasha charms with an audacious concept ingeniously executed, sly setting, and game, attractive, beautifully costumed cast; the production feels like a unique creature all its own. If the story doesn't remain in memory long after we leave the premises, the glow of its idiosyncratic magic lingers.
Follow Helen Eisenbach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/whobuthelen