Saturday, February 8, 2020

160 (2019-2020): Review: BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (seen February 7, 2020)

“Sex, Drugs, but No Rock and Roll”
Nineteen sixty-nine. Woodstock. The Miracle Mets. The first artificial heart implant. Barbara Streisand ties Katharine Hepburn for the Academy Award. The Stonewall riots. Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Apollo 11. My Lai. “Abbey Road.” Path-breaking Hollywood films like Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and one, nominated for four Academy Awards, in which two married couples test the boundaries of friendship and love by jumping into bed together. Its name: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (hereafter BCTA).
Jennifer Damiano, Jose Perez. All photos: Monique Carboni.
Once considered daring, but, half-a-century later, a dated reflection of then rapidly evolving social mores, BCTA, for some reason, has been adapted by book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman, composer Duncan Sheik, and lyricists Sheik and Amanda Green into a sluggish, uninspired, unevenly cast, insufficiently funny, chamber musical. Scott Elliott has staged it smoothly for the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, with “musical staging” (the choreography being very limited) by Kelly Devine. 
Jose Perez, Jennifer Damiano.
Like those other events of 1969, BCTA, written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, and directed by the former, was pretty hot news in the swinging 60s, when all sorts of conventional sexual, cultural, scientific, and political borders were boldly being crossed. Its titillating publicity shot of four attractive Hollywood actors—left to right, Elliot Gould as Ted, Natalie Wood as Carol, Robert Culp as Bob, and Dyan Cannon as Alice—sitting up in bed, ambivalence writ large across their faces, was about as representative of the time as was, for instance, the album cover of “Abbey Road.”
Ana Noguieria, Michael Zegen.
In 1973, a bowdlerized TV sitcom adaptation of BCTA—mildly racy but too timid to dive into the film’s raunchy territory of group sex, spouse swapping, and open marriage—came and went in a heartbeat. Mazursky, who died in 2014, was reportedly excited about the notion of making a musical from the material. I suspect he would have been less thrilled if he’d lived long enough to see it. 
Jennifer Damiano, Jose Perez, Ana Nogueria, Michael Zegen.
When a musical is made from a movie blessed with a score by someone like Quincy Jones and an evergreen tune like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” the composer has to bring his A game. However, the prolific, Grammy-winning Sheik (Spring Awakening) offers a series of only passably pleasing, easy-listening, jazz-inflected pastiches, none of them showstoppers or anywhere nearly as memorable as the Bacharach-David song. Oddly, given the great rock and roll of the period, you won’t hear anything like it in Sheik’s mild-mannered compositions.
Ana Nogueria, Jennifer Damiano.
As woven into the plot, the songs almost seem afterthoughts—whaddaya say we put one in here?—rather than organic expressions of thoughts and emotions. For most of them, one or more characters will simply lift a hand mic or use a standing one, delivering the songs as songs, not as necessary outgrowths of dynamic confrontations.
Jennifer Damiano.
Elliot’s concept, in fact, suggests that the script is being enacted in a nightclub, Derek McLane’s set—surrounded by the audience on three sides—being little more than a sort of crushed velvet, sectional sofa. Uniquely adaptable to multiple configurations, including a bed, it morphs into each new one with the aid of the actors. 

Upstage, where the four-piece band of keyboard (Jason Hart), guitars/sitar/bass (Simon Kafka), reeds (Noelle Rueschman), and bass/drums (Jamie Mohamdein) is lined up, the space is dominated by two-layers of glittering bead curtains, basking prettily in the colorations of lighting designer Jeff Croiter.
Ana Nogueira, Suzanne Vega.
Furthering the nightclub ambience is the presence of a sort of compere, the Band Leader, well-played with low-key sophistication by folksy singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. Without changing her simple outfit of black slacks and blouse, she sings, narrates, and portrays minor roles. Going one step further in this life-is-a-cabaret conception is the occasional bringing onstage of ringside spectators, who may actually dance or briefly converse with the stars. I mentally thanked the press rep who arranged my tickets for not having given me a front-row seat.
Suzanne Vega. 
Sherman’s book essentializes the film script, about a documentary filmmaker, Bob (Joél Pérez), who goes with his wife, Carol (Jennifer Damiano), to an Esalen-like retreat in California, where, as per the touchy-feely, New Age, consciousness-raising practices of the day, the couple learns to put their feelings before their intellects. So open does Bob feel that he confesses to having had sex with another woman, explaining that it was only physical, not emotional. Carol is cool with it, even revealing it to their more conservative friends, Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Noguera), who are uncomfortable with Bob and Carol’s newfound liberation. Ted, though, declares to Bob that he’s struggled with similar inclinations.
Jose Perez, Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano, Michael Zegen.
Eventually, Bob finds Carol having sex with a man. After an initial outbreak of double standardism, he accepts her behavior. One thing leads to another, Ted and Alice board the sexual liberation train, and the couples awkwardly attempt an orgy (the kind of thing that now often calls for an “intimacy consultant,” although none is credited) before realizing it may not be what the world needs now. 
Michael Zegen, Jennifer Damiano, Jose Perez, Ana Nogueiro.
Although everyone gets down to their undies, and these are removed from beneath the covers, no full nudity is exposed. Despite what we’re supposed to imagine under the sheets, the cast does  the usual contortions to hide their privates from both us and each other. Such propriety, of course, only underlines the ersatz puerility driving the action in this sexually flaccid sex comedy. 

Ersatz, in fact, defines much of the 90-minute, intermissionless show, from its pseudo-period music to its clichéd pot smoking scene, to designer Jeff Mahshie’s costume missteps for Ted (Elliot Gould’s clothes were classier), to the disparity between the movie’s charismatic male stars and those on view here. If I never again have to see José Pérez endlessly cavort in his BVDS, I promise to be a much better person.
Jose Perez, Jennifer Damiano.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear how nicely Zegen (Joel Maisel on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) sings, and enjoyed the work of all three women. But, despite the show’s occasional pluses, it fails to sustain interest, to convincingly convey its period, or to satisfactorily justify its existence. As years go, 1969 was a great one. It’s too bad Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice didn’t stay there.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 22