Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Good Actors Make Good COMPANY

"Who's high?" Neil Patrick Harris as "Robert," Jon Cryer as "David," and Jennifer Laura Thompson as "Jenny" perform at the 2011 New York Philharmonic Orchestra Spring Gala Benefit Performance Of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center on April 7, 2011 in New York City.
Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images North America

(This is a further reflection on COMPANY. See previous post.)

There’s a subtle moment in the musical COMPANY, after unmarried Robert has introduced friends Jenny and David to recreational drug use.  It’s uproar, until Jenny worries that they’ll wake the kids.  She leaves for the kitchen.  David refuses another reefer, because “Jenny didn’t like it. “ But Robert observes that Jenny got very high and had a great time.  David corrects him.  “She liked it for me.” He leaves to help in the kitchen.  All Robert has to say is, “Wow.  Oh, wow.”

How does the actor playing Robert perform a line like that?  “Wow.  Oh, wow.”  What does it mean?  I’ve seen productions of COMPANY where the actor said the lines in a tone of generic disbelief.  Those productions fell flat.

But in the recently broadcast film of a concert-staging of COMPANY, actor Neil Patrick Harris made clear that “Wow, oh wow” means a combination of “Wow, you can’t do what you want when you’re married,” and, “Wow, Jenny risked herself to please David, and David just sacrificed his preferences to please Jenny.”   Harris and his costars also gave us a strong sense that there’s something deep going on that Robert can’t even begin to fathom. 

How does a good actor do it?  I can explain, having played “David” in COMPANY back at Duke University in 1978.  I’d thought I was a good actor:  I memorized my lines, figured out where the jokes were, and punched those up the same way in every rehearsal and performance.  

Then my “Jenny,” a wise student actress named Wendi Bukowitz, invited me to her apartment for dinner in character as husband and wife.  This struck me as a silly, pretentious idea.  But then we, as actors, discussed how we, as husband and wife, met each other, how we spend our days, how we know Robert, and even how our apartment is laid out.  Then we had dinner in character, talking about our day.

It still seemed like a useless exercise, until rehearsals.   Suddenly, there were all kinds of communications going on between us behind Robert’s back, but picked up by the audience.  She glanced up to Junior’s room, and I knew what she was silently telling me. I made an innocuous statement, and she picked up the message, “I love you. I’ll do the right thing.”  

In our tiny studio theatre, the audience easily picked up on the subtleties of our performance, and the local critic singled out our scene for the ways we communicated feelings under the dialogue – what actors call “subtext.”

In the concert COMPANY, and also in the DVD of John Doyle’s Broadway revival of the show, the actors all do a great job of communicating the subtext.  

Perhaps COMPANY is too subtle to be appreciated where audiences can’t see those sidelong glances and locked gazes, where a camera doesn’t focus on the actor who says nothing while the others prattle.  That might explain how the conventional wisdom about COMPANY has been so wrong for so long.  Even in recent blog postings, it’s a given that COMPANY is a “cynical” show with weak script, clever but heartless songs by Stephen Sondheim, and “the kinds of characters you avoid at cocktail parties.” Conventional wisdom holds that the creators of the show palliated its anti-marriage message by tacking on Robert’s final prayer, “Somebody hold me too close… Somebody make me aware of being alive.” 

But the conventional wisdom has been wrong for forty years.  “Being Alive” is a breakthrough:  Robert is the last one at the party to “get it.”  Finally, he reads the subtext.


Susan Rouse said...

I hope your friend Wendy reads your posting-- bet she's be pleased after all this time to know that her acting insights continue to pay off.
I agree that part of what worked really well here were the subtle and intimate nuances in the way they played the married couples, and the way those things played out in the various friend relationships. And it brought out the subtleties of the lyrics, which have an edge but don't strike me as cynical. Maybe we still so used to the idealized view of love in musicals that anything else seems cynical. . .

Smoot said...

Yes! I re-read the liner notes to the CD of the John Doyle production, where the author picks up on a theme that runs through Company, and through Follies and Night Music as well: "Everybody dies"... and so, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? (In Follies, Ben and Sally sing, "How much time can we hope that there will be? Not much time...." In Night Music, "Send in the Clowns" is the song of a middle-aged woman who just missed her chance to bring "coherence" and love to her life.

Susan Rouse said...

So I just found the liner notes and squinted to read them. I think you're right , but would add that along with that goes an acknowledgment of limitation-- including death--that grows from early on (regret in Sorry/Grateful, and gets focused differently in other songs that follow) and reaches it's peak it "Being Alive." And i'd say that this acknowledgment is positive, not cynical. Maybe close to the reasons why I think the way the relationships are resolved at the end of FOLLIES is satisfying.