By Lucy Komisar
This almost tongue-in-cheek celebration of sex would imply that passion begets foolishness, especially among men. As we watch the absurdly shifting liaisons and desires among the mostly upper class protagonists, we understand the genesis of
the play’s famous song performed by the actress Desirée (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Quick, send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.
So, don’t take too seriously this plot, which the playbill remarks is suggested by the 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman, a master at plumbing the psychology of lovers. It reminds one of the magical musical chairs of Shakespeare’s love comedies.
The 1973 play by Hugh Wheeler, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and staging by Trevor Nunn, has much to delight audiences, beginning with Sondheim’s songs and their excellent renditions by an accomplished cast. Unfortunately, the play often has a sluggish pace and lacks the sparkle it deserves.
Set at the turn of the last century in Sweden, Wheeler’s script follows eight people who lust after each other in a Ronde that goes through comic in-your-face conflicts before the various lovers sort things out.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is smashing as the charming Desirée, a touring actress in her 40s who, partly to forget the third rate venues she plays, amuses herself with serial affairs, the latest with a married military officer who is a bit of a jerk.
Her old flame, a fiftiesh businessman and widower, Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), who apparently wants to recapture his youth, can’t get his 18-year-old second wife Anne (Ramona Mallory, who has a lovely soprano voice), to consummate the marriage after nearly a year. He considers whether he should ravish her Now, as the song says. He is definitely one of the clowns.
Complicating matters, Hendrik, Fredrik’s son by his late wife and a seminary student, is infatuated with Anne, though he makes a pass at the maid, Petra (terrifically played by Leih Ann Larkin), who seems to have the healthiest attitude of all toward sex – to enjoy it without complications of control or conquest.
Fredrik goes to see Desirée in a play. Later, backstage, he admits his difficult marital situation and wonders, Would you? And she replies, What are friends for? But arriving at the most inconvenient time is her current lover, the military office Count Carl-Magus Malcolm (Aaron Lazar), an outrageous sexist. In praise of women, he sings: God knows the foolishness about them, But if one had to live without them, The world would surely be a poorer, If purer, place.
And then the riposte from the women left behind. The count’s wife Charlotte (Erin Davie, who plays a very good drunk) is quite au courant about what is going on. And miserable, and helpless. Charlotte and Ann sing a plaintive duet, Every day, a little death, in which they declare Men are stupid, men are vain, Love’s disgusting, love’s insane, A humiliating business! Well-placed ace by Sondheim.
All will come together and sparks will fly when Desirée organizes a house party, a weekend at the country estate of her mother, Madame Armfeldf (the grand Angela Lansbury) who muses about her history of opportunistic liaisons with royals and offers pithy advice to Desirée’s daughter, Fredrika, 13, (Keaton Whittaker). (Do you wonder about the origin of the young woman’s name?) Madame, dressed in a black ruffled silk dress with long glittering neck piece, felicitously describes sex as a pleasurable means to a measurable end. Another point for Sondheim.
A weekend in the country is a show-stopping company highlight. And the stage for the dénouement. Everyone is invited. The two rivals, the solider and Egerman, are ready to duke it out, but then in It would have been wonderful, commiserate about how much they are in unhappy thrall to Desirée.
Only Egerman’s maid and Madame Armfeldt’s butler, Frid (Bradley Dean), seem to be having a good time with each other.
The deceptions are carried out in waltz time as if to heighten the fantasy of it all. The sets and costumes (by David Farley) in white and gray — white painted glass doors and windows and birch trees — add to the ethereal mood.
Nunn’s production excels as an operetta, but sometimes falls down as acting. The confrontation between Desirée’s two men seems opera buffa, with the stock complaisant older husband and the tin soldier lover. Frederick has been taken by a fantasy of the little girl-wife who dotes on him and stands at the gate to see him arrive home, but when he sees her run off with his son, he barely seems to care about the pain of intruding reality or to recognize the falling of his illusions and the extent of his vanity and selfishness.
Still, even imperfectly performed Sondheim is better than no Sondheim.
A Little Night Music. Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, New York City. Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Trevor Nunn; choreographed by Lynne Page. http://www.nightmusiconbroadway.com/. Opened December 13, 2009; closes June 20, 2010. Reopens July 13, 2010, when Bernadette Peters takes the role of Desirée Armfeldt and Elaine Stritch plays Madame Armfeldt.