Sunday, April 1, 2018

192 (2017-2018): Review: THE LUCKY ONES (seen March 29, 2018)

“Better Luck Next Time”

It’s been only three months since Shaun and Abigail Bengson—the married indie-musician team called The Bengsons—closed Hundred Days, their flawed but promising first full New York production at the New York Theatre Workshop. 

Abigail and Shaun are now back, just a few blocks east, at Alphabet City’s Connelly Theatre, with their new musical, The Lucky Ones, produced by Ars Nova. Directed by Anne Kauffman, who also directed Hundred Days, it’s larger scaled than the earlier show, but it’s a similarly autobiographical (mostly) musical play/concert, given a stripped-down, café theatre-like approach. And it’s similarly flawed but promising.
Company of The Lucky Ones. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.
Once again we view a sparsely adorned, brick-walled stage, designed by Rachel Hauck, dressed with little more than stacking chairs, musicians’ platforming, and microphones. Amith Chandrashaker’s lights help make it nice to look at, and Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s quotidian costumes clarify who’s who.
Abigail Bengson, Shaun Bengson. Photo: Ben Arons Photography. 
Occasionally, a chorus is ensconced in a loft area behind the audience; the venue, built in 1874 as part of what originally was a church orphanage, served for the orphans’ choir. Seeing the chorus, if you’re suitably flexible, requires you to swivel your head.  

The Lucky Ones, being largely autobiographical (“a true story, even the parts that never happened,” Shaun declares), allows The Bengsons to play themselves. Joining them are 14 actor-singers (five of them forming the “ensemble”), plus the two musicians who make up the Bengsons’ electro-folk band, Dani Markham and Pearl Rhein.
Shaun Bengson. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.
 The book, by The Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, who also collaborated on the much simpler Hundred Days, introduces Abigail’s family when she, her middle sister, Emily (Ashley Pérez Flanagan), and her older sister, Phoebe (Jennifer Morris), were growing up in a town Abigail calls Lotus, which she locates in “a part of Vermont that happens to be in Maine.”

Their hippie-like parents, Sherrill (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and Tom (Tom Nelis), run the progressive Summerhill-like Blue Mountain School, where students are instructed to question everything. The sisters attend it along with their neighboring cousin, Kai (Damon Daunno), son of their mother’s sister, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), whose daughter is Amber (Amelia Workman).

The rambling, not particularly enthralling story describes Abigail’s dysfunctional family (including her philandering dad); the free-range, ultraliberal upbringing the children received; the arrival of a sweet new student named Emma (Adina Verson); Kai’s attraction to her; the drug-fueled hallucinations that put him under an angel’s spell (Zach McNally) and drove him to commit a horrible act of violence; and efforts to resolve the family’s issues in later years. The program includes a family tree illustration with cartoons showing the relationships of all the characters.
Damon Daunno. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.
Very little action moves the narrative forward, creating a sense of stasis. What we witness is mainly offered in the form of memories and comments on the memories, much of it based on verbatim transcripts of interviews with those involved. For an example of how memories sans action can create artistically exciting theatre no better example could be cited than Albee’s Three Tall Women, now in revival on Broadway.

While the rather dreary tale is often lightened by the music, as the play progresses over an unnecessarily long two hours (with one intermission), talk begins to take precedence over music, the words becoming boring blather. Just because the memories are expressed in articulate language doesn’t make them as fascinating to an audience of strangers as they must be to The Bengsons. Some of what we hear, in fact, recaps material about Abigail and Shaun already visited in Hundred Days, making The Lucky Ones its prequel.

Anne Kauffman deserves credit for her physical staging, especially the breakfast scene early in the show where most of the characters are introduced, but Sonya Tayeh’s unusual choreography is the most memorable visual component. Kauffman, though, has failed to shape or edit the material in a compelling way, allowing its incipient sense of self-indulgence to eventually overshadow everything.
Abigail Benson and company. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.
Luckily, The Lucky Ones has a first-rate cast, veterans Nelis, Taylor, and Plunkett giving the production a genuine touch of class supported by promise in all the younger players. (Fun fact: Plunkett was the last actress to play Shaw’s St. Joan in New York prior to its current incarnation with Condola Rashid.)

Abigail Bengson, who plays guitar and drums, has a versatile, powerful voice and an expressive presence offset by the softer tones and less intrusive personality of Shaun Bengson. Their music, which appears to have given them a following, touches various styles, from bluegrass to rock, some of it broadly accessible, some of it narrowly idiosyncratic, is not an ideal fit for narrative musical theatre. 
Tom Nelis. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.
Whereas the music often emerges from the dialogue, it just as often—when Abigail is singing—has a self-conscious, stand-alone quality that fails to engage the narrative and draws more attention to the singer than what she’s singing. 
Adina Verson, Damon Daunno. Photo: Ben Arons Photography.
If you’re familiar with The Bengsons, enjoy their sound, and don’t mind an overwritten, unkempt script, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For myself, I wish them better luck next time.


Connelly Theatre
220 E. 4th St., NYC
Through April 21