Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Falsettoland starts with the drawing open of a curtain across the stage, and ends with the curtain being closed. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a curtain used that way on an off-Loop stage, and the show’s use of the time-honored, lately neglected device is rather startling at first.

It has multiple purposes, though. The curtain, as it turns out, is a hospital curtain; when Jim Corti, as a psychiatrist named Mendel, closes the curtain at the end of the show, he’s in a hospital acting partly in his professional capacity as the mental-health care giver to a family that has just lost one of its members to AIDS. The word “AIDS” is never mentioned–Falsettoland takes place in 1981, before the mysterious new “gay cancer” had been given its name; to the characters in this story, it’s just one more nameless cause for anxiety. And even if it had a name, what meaning would it have? After all, other familiar words–family, friend, lover, husband, child, doctor, heterosexuality, homosexuality, love–have not helped the inhabitants of Falsettoland understand and run their lives.

The name “Falsettoland” suggests Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or James Barrie’s Never-Never-Land; like those fantasy regions it’s a territory in turmoil, exhilarating and upsetting and discombobulating to the people trying to find their way in it. Mendel describes Falsettoland by listing some of its inhabitants: “Homosexuals, women with children,” he sings, referring to his former client Marvin and Marvin’s ex-wife Trina–now married to Mendel. “Short insomniacs,” he continues, meaning himself, “and a teeny-tiny band.”

In ten little words, Mendel–and his creators, composer-lyricist William Finn and original director James Lapine–have defined the parameters of Falsettoland: a world inhabited by confused, sexually ambivalent people whose lives are set to music. The better to emphasize the opera as well as the soap.

Falsettoland is an opera; running a brisk, intermissionless hour and a quarter, it is entirely sung by its seven-member cast to the accompaniment of a three-piece pop band (led here with gloss and crackle by keyboardist Eric Lane Barnes). But it’s also soap: Finn defines the lives of its essentially self-absorbed characters entirely in terms of how they hurt each other. Marvin loves Trina, but not that way anymore; Trina is jealous of Marvin’s boyfriend, Whizzer, and berates herself for that jealousy (and naturally her husband Mendel takes most of the flak). Marvin and Whizzer’s highly competitive pattern is to alternately reach out and withdraw from each other. When Whizzer gets AIDS, it merely cements the story’s soapiness–not because AIDS isn’t a real and serious issue but because in this context it’s so schematic, a nice, neat life-and-death contrast to the coming-of-age of Jason, Marvin and Trina’s son, whose imminent bar mitzvah drives most of the plot’s palpitations.

Further undermining any immediacy the story might have had are the clever but distancing faux-naif lyrics, which deliberately describe unorthodox situations and turbulent emotions with bland disengagement or patently false perkiness. “We’re sitting / And watching Jason play baseball / We’re watching Jason play baseball / We’re watching Jewish boys / Who cannot play baseball / Play baseball,” the adults sing at Jason’s Little League game. “Look look look look look / It’s a lesbian from next door,” pipes up the lesbian from next door as she enters Marvin’s home. “What would I do / If I had not met you? / Who would I blame my life on?” Marvin sings to Whizzer, the young lover who revealed to him his dominantly homosexual nature, which led him to leave his wife and son.

Marvin’s coming-out was the principal subject of Finn’s 1981 musical March of the Falsettos; in Falsettoland, its recent sequel, Marvin copes with the preparations and problems associated with Jason’s bar mitzvah (which will mark a turning point in Marvin’s connection to the family), and with the mysterious illness of his lover, whose hospitalization brings the show to its crisis and climax. Along the way Finn offers glimpses of the supporting characters’ domestic distress: Trina’s jealousy of Whizzer, which she takes out on her husband, and the loving but dissatisfied relationship between the lesbian doctor Charlotte and her homemaking lover Cordelia: “You save lives / And I save chicken fat / I can’t fucking deal with that,” Cordelia complains. Meanwhile Charlotte shows a growing concern about the strange disease that finally takes Whizzer’s life: “Bachelors arrive sick and frightened / They leave, weeks later, unenlightened.”

The AIDS epidemic is signaled in strange little comments like that, or in ironic moments like the racquetball game between Marvin and Whizzer: the only time Marvin can beat Whizzer, the better athlete, is when Whizzer’s strength begins to fail. AIDS hangs like a cloud over everything in this show; that’s why it was written. But whether it’s the deliberate deadpan quality of Finn’s lyrics or the essential self-absorption of the characters, Falsettoland suffers from a basic problem: if its story didn’t hinge on an issue that’s clearly of personal concern to Finn and a good part of his audience, it would be hard to care much about Marvin and his brood.

That said, Falsettoland has much to recommend it as a show. Finn’s score, though derivative (Stephen Sondheim in his early 70s Company mode is a particularly notable influence, but so is Marvin Hamlisch), is thoroughly likable, energetic, and lovely under Tim Schirmer’s musical direction. Jeffrey Ortmann’s direction and Jim Corti’s choreography are trim and elegant; so is Kevin Rigdon’s set, whose core is a series of louvered panels that suggest the characters’ emotional concealment as well as their well-heeled lifestyles; and the cast sings and moves superbly through the swiftly paced story. Susie McMonagle is especially strong in “Holding to the Ground,” Trina’s meditation on a life that didn’t turn out the way she’d planned; John Herrera and Keith Byron-Kirk, as Marvin and Whizzer, are individually powerful, though lacking in sexual chemistry; Matthew Steven Bauer is impressively self-possessed as young Jason; and Jim Corti is a figure of surprisingly steely strength as the psychiatrist Mendel, who holds the show together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Gurard Studio.