“Company” a surreal, sophisticated view of marriage game

John Doyle turns Sondheim‘s classic into elegantly staged chamber musical

By Lucy Komisar

Artists tend to have signatures styles and so do playwrights, so why not directors? Following on the success of his production of Stephen Sondheim‘s “Sweeny Todd” last year, John Doyle has staged Sondheim‘s “Company” with the same artifice of having the players double as musicians, reverting to their flutes and cellos after delivering their lines.

The device gives a surreal tinge to both plays. Surreal made sense in “Sweeny Todd,” a tale about murder. But surreal for the marriage game, where a bunch of New Yorkers are trying to get their single friend, Robert (Raºl Esparza), to wed? Well, yes, it works in “Company,” too. It‘s a way of taking vignettes that might seem sitcom and turning them into artistic riffs about life. George Furth, who did the book, somehow manages to touch all the stereotypical bases without seeming clichéd.

This stylized and sophisticated production is a perfect match for the text. The actor-musicians sit on swivel stools atop plexi-glass rises. Hanging above a white Greek pillar (surrounded at the base by home radiators) is a huge square chandelier with 49 bulbs. The floor is parquet, and the baby grand is a Steinway. The set is a pastiche of soigné Manhattan apartments. Everyone is elegantly in black.

This is a funny valentine to love and marriage. The realities of the five couples who are trying to get 35-year-old Robert to join the club are anything but cozy. Harry (Keith Buterbaugh) has been arrested for being drunk. His wife, Sarah (Kristin Huffman), contradicts and swipes at him. Yet, as he holds her in a choke hold, she sings that marriage is a joy. Another couple, Dave (Fred Rose) and Jenny (Leenya Rideout) get stoned. Joanne (Barbara Walsh), a bored, rich sophisticate in her 40s, provides drama to the Sondheim standard, “Here‘s to the ladies who lunch.” Three single women, April (Elizabeth Stanley), Kathy (Kelly Jeanne Grant), and Marta (Angel Desai) do a smashing jazzy rendition of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

There are funny insider New York jokes. When Amy (Heather Laws) starts having doubts about marrying Paul (Robert Cunningham) because he is Jewish, he reminds her, “At least three-quarters of your friends are Jewish.” And she retorts, “I much prefer my Gentile enemies. At least they leave you alone.” Laws performs a show-stopper in which she sings lyrics at breakneck speed, an extremely difficult feat.

The love fest appears to be more between Robert and his friends than between the partners of the couples themselves. We enjoy the delight of trombones, tuba and trumpet blaring, “What Would We Do Without You!” and the rag-style “Side by Side by Side.” No matter. Better the truth than the saccharine ladies magazine fictions that were exposed after the fifties.

Esparza projects the face of a perfectly ordinary fellow and does not stand out among the others in the cast. No star quality here. The production itself has the feeling of a staged concert by a talented ensemble. It provides a delicious, if not memorable, evening. Like a piece of the cake that dieting Sarah would die for.

“Company.” Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Directed by John Doyle. Set by David Gallo. Music direction and orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Starring Raºl Esparza, Barbara Walsh, Keith Buterbaugh, Matt Castle, Robert Cunningham, Angel Desai, Kelly Jeanne Grant, Kristin Huffman, Amy Justman, Heather Laws, Leenya Rideou, Fred Rose, Bruce Sabath, Elizabeth Stanley.

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Mon – Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm. $36.25-$101.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.companyonbroadway.com/.

Photos by Paul Kolnik.

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