Saturday, December 30, 2023

The End of the World

Whether or not the end of the world really does come in Stephen Sondheim and David Ives's musical Here We Are, a feeling of impending doom permeates the play, which is perhaps fitting since it was the last piece Sondheim worked on before he died.

Currently, the show is playing in an ambitious but imperfect production at The Shed, the ambitious but rather imperfect arts monstrosity erected at Hudson Yards, not far from the Vessel. (At least The Shed hasn't induced anyone to commit suicide... yet.)

It would be a shame to dwell on Joe Mantello's uneven direction of the piece, as the play itself really is quite good, and deserves to have a great future. Inspired by the films of surrealist director Luis Buñuel, Here We Are uses the dream-like qualities of surrealism to explore the unsettling nature of human existence.

And what humans the play gives us! Plastic surgeon Paul Zimmer (played by Jeremy Shamos) and his wife Claudia (played by Amber Gray) arrive at the home of the wealthy and glamorous Leo and Marianne Brink (Bobby Cannavale and Rachel Bay Jones). They bring with them the flamboyant ambassador Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale) and the gender-ambiguous radical Fritz (Micaela Diamond).

Everyone is expecting brunch, but no brunch has been prepared. Fortunately, money is no object to this class of people, so they decide to go out for brunch, only to find a succession of absurd situations preventing them from eating. They encounter a variety of servants and waiters, all played by the hysterical Tracie Bennett and Denis O'Hare. They eventually make their way to Raffael's embassy, picking up along the way a Colonel (Francois Battiste), a Soldier (Jin Ha), and a Bishop (David Hyde Pierce).

While the first act of the play roughly mirrors Buñuel's 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the second act is inspired by an earlier piece, The Exterminating Angel, which has also been made into an opera by composer Thomas Adès. I'm not familiar with Adès's music, but I am with that of Sondheim. This score is unmistakably his, particularly reminiscent of Sunday in the Park with George, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Unfortunately, this production pipes the music in from an orchestra playing offstage. The volume of the music coming through the speakers sometimes overwhelms the actors, which is surprising given how strong some of the singers are. Amber Gray has already made a name for herself with Great Comet and Hadestown, but future audiences will want to keep an ear out for the amazing voice of Jin Ha.

Here We Are is only scheduled to run through January 21st, so see it while you can!