Road Show

John Doyle and Stephen Sondheim make a dazzling theatrical couple. In Road Show, their third collaboration in nearly as many years, Doyle once again devises a theatrical milieu for Sondheim’s music and lyrics that simmers the project into an acid trace reduction, then finds physical metaphors that etch the show into the audience’s consciousness and conscience. But the stark Brechtian environment of Road Show is tempered by its strangely appealing emotionality, a new element of the Doyle/Sondheim collaboration. After the chilly bloodlust of Sweeney Todd (2005) and the icy remove of Company (2006)— Doyle-directed Sondheim revivals notable for using their actors as the shows’ musicians—Road Show encourages the audience not only to consider the story at hand but to feelour way through the tale it recounts and its contemporary resonances.

Sweeney and Company seemed to take place in a grand nowhere of Doyle’s imagination. His set design and direction roots Road Show in the palpable materiality of the late 19th and early 20th century history of American finance and real estate development. Wooden boxes and steel file cabinets, late 19th century architects’ drafting tables and drawers, cardboard suitcases and ramshackle closets compose the set. Every piece of décor serves a dual purpose. It creates a schematic environment for the action, and it offers the meticulously choreographed cast places to perch and lurk as they observe the story’s beginning and ending with the fateful moment of Addison Mizner’s death, scenes that bookend a flashback that explains his arrival at a death no one mourns.

Road Show describes the lives of Addison and his brother Wilson, charged by their idealistic dying father (the distinguished, sincere William Parry) to make their way in the world. Urged by their adoring widowed mother (Alma Cuervo, radiating warmth) to head to Alaska, Addison (Alexander Gemignani) weathers cold and misery, digging a claim until he strikes gold. Wilson (Michael Cerveris, in a tour-de-force performance of depraved greed and ethical indifference) prefers the lazy way, finding himself more comfortable cosseted by the warm corruptions of town in the company of gamblers and prostitutes.

The moral, ethical tussle between the brothers forms Road Show’s backbone. Addy attempts one bad business deal after another, each promising to make his fortune. After casting about desperately, Addy realizes that he loves architecture, and sets himself up in business with Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder), a sweet, rich young man he meets on a train. Eventually, Addy’s proud artistic dreams, as well as his romantic and business partnership with Bessemer, crumble against the force of his brother’s lust for cold, hard, easy cash. Addy gives in to Willy’s schemes and joins him in a swindle to sell swampland in Florida.

Road Show’s cynical portrait of American opportunism seems prescient, given the economic news of the day. The brothers follow the money, moving through one get-rich-quick scheme after another, leaving the good and the righteous drowned in their wake. They celebrate success by throwing stacks and stacks of cash high into the air and letting it drift down to the stage floor like leaves in the fall. Before long, the stage is littered with counterfeit bills; so are the laps of spectators seated in the first few rows of the theatre. The brothers toss their bucks into the flies with arrogant exuberance that eventually morphs into hubris. They easily replenish their stock, as more fat and messy bundles always seem to be waiting in still another file cabinet drawer. The omnipresence of money not just as a prop but as the set’s key bit of gestic décor neatly delivers Sondheim and Doyle’s moral: America built its ethos on greed.

This cynicism extends into each of the show’s relationships, which seem divined only for immoral intent. As the brothers obey their father’s charge to “find their road,” they leave strewn behind them the hearts of those they used and abused to make their way. There’s no such thing as love in this world, except for the brothers’ incestuous narcissism. Fuelled by cocaine and alcohol, this Cain and Abel sell themselves for cash and wind up alone together, tucked beside one another in the bed of their birth and their mutual demise.

Doyle directs with imaginative high theatricality. When the brothers first travel to Alaska, Willy overturns a bucket of white paper flakes on Addy’s head to represent the region’s frigid snow. The set’s boxes and cabinets house props that lie in wait for the characters to find as the story progresses. A liquor set-up suddenly sits on an architect’s flat drawer; a bowler hat conveniently appears from a file cabinet. Nothing comes from offstage in this production—it’s all there.

With the props ready and waiting to be disclosed and used, Doyle and Sondheim imply that the instruments of our success and our failure are always close at hand. In what appears to be a character’s sleight-of-hand, glasses, architectural elevations, liquor bottles, and hats are brought from their hiding places not unlike the gold for which the brothers first search. When the vein of metal or the props finally appear, however, Doyle and Sondheim remind us that how we use them depends on adherence to our own moral code. Willy’s and Addy’s are increasingly bent and broken, as the brothers progress through their own history and remind us of ours.

Following from Doyle’s impeccably Brechtian vision, the objects that quickly appear and disappear haunt the mise-en-scene, just as each actor’s choice—of gesture, of character, of movement—is haunted by those she didn’t select. History, too, in Road Show, is a Brechtian “not-but,” reminding spectators that as actors in time, our lives, too, are haunted by choices made and not. The metaphor works gracefully in the realization of Road Show’s fable.

The set’s only moving unit is a bed on wheels, stored under the collection of boxes stage right. It rolls out to provide the platform on which the characters travel their lives’ road and to represent the bed on which all the principals finally die. The platform bed, moved by the chorus at a frenzied pace, underlines that the road that moves us through life is the same one that delivers us at death.

Doyle keeps the whole cast and chorus always present on the wide stage, sitting or standing to watch the action. Papa and Mama Mizner look on with openly emotional concern, the mother earnest, sincere, and frequently disappointed in her boys’ progress. Papa, who’s responsible for setting them on the road toward the proverbial American Dream, becomes increasingly disgusted by their willingness to compromise his ideals for the money they almost seem to manufacture, despite the success or failure of their schemes. The chorus, with its active listening and intense, impassive watching, mirrors for spectators our own intent presence and our various investments in the meanings we cull from Road Show’s rich, dense cartography.

While Sondheim’s music isn’t catchy, it’s true to the story the production tells. I find myself still thinking back to the sounds, images, and moments Sondheim, Doyle, John Weidman—who wrote the book—and the show’s wonderful designers wrought through emotion, time, and space. The memory of that money tossed high into the air like so many snowflakes, wafting down to be trampled by characters who care only for what it can buy them, remains vivid and full of import. Each time I watch a news commentator discussing the pros and cons of bailing out the US auto industry, after we’ve already saved the big banks to the tune of $2,000 per citizen in taxes, I’m reminded of Road Show’s stacks of cash, floating to the floor like so much trashy confetti.

The American Dream indeed.

The Feminist Spectator

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