On the way home from seeing The Most Beautiful Room in New York, my wife Steph actually said this: “As a lifelong lover of musicals, I resented this. It is everything that people who hate musicals say they hate about musicals.”
What happens in a good production of a musical when the musical itself isn’t good? Beautiful Room gave us a chance to find out.
As always at Long Wharf Theatre, all the pieces were in place for an excellent show: everything, from the acting talent on stage, to the musicians in the ensemble, to the lighting and sets the actors worked with, were top notch, bearing all the marks of people working hard and dedicated to their craft. But none of that prevented a woman leaving the theater with a friend from exclaiming aloud, “well, that was stupid!”
The play runs until May 28.
The Most Beautiful Room in New York — with music by David Shire, book and lyrics by Adam Gopnik, and direction from Gordon Edelstein — tells the story of David (Matt Bogart), a chef who, with his wife Claire (Anastasia Barzee), runs a small and well-regarded restaurant in what is heavily suggested to be Union Square in Manhattan. David has a loyal following, particularly from the people who work at the farmer’s market outside, where David buys many of his ingredients. But then his rent goes way up, and desperate for cash, he turns to old business partner Sergio (Constantine Maroulis), a greasy rock star of a playboy who has since built his restaurant experience into a glitzy media and business enterprise. Sergio agrees to bail David out, but at the cost of some independence, and meanwhile, it’s clear that Sergio has romantic designs on Claire, too. David’s deal with Sergio, then, is a threat to his career and his family — Claire, his son Bix (Tyler Jones), and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus). Will he prevail? Meanwhile, Bix gets involved in the workings of an anarchist pizzeria in Bensonhurst run by Carlo (Mark Nelson) and develops a budding romance with Carlo’s daughter Anna (Krystina Alabado), who offer, possibly, another way to live altogether.
As with other not-good books and theater productions, one sign of Beautiful Room’s not-goodness is the ability to get lost in the weeds of specific moments that don’t work because so many details are distractingly sloppy. David and Sergio are ostensibly in the high-end restaurant business, but the food prep portrayed is unconvincing. As a previous reviewer pointed out, it’s charming to have a character playing a chef chop an onion onstage, but not when he’s not taught to do it well. I got hung up on the haphazard way David prepared his slow-cooked lamb. The leg of lamb didn’t fit in the pot he’d picked for it. The lid of said pot thus didn’t close, and we got to see the neat effect of the two bottles of wine poured into the pot slowly boiling off. In the play, David walks out and leaves it that way for hours. After seeing that kind of preparation, it’s a piece of meat I’d be worried about eating, and a pot I would be terrified to clean.
The sloppiness of the details is mirrored in the musical’s treatment of the characters themselves, as they do things that one hopes no adults actually do. Does a chef who’s mad really sweep his hands across the hanging pots and pans to make a racket, and guzzle the wine he’s been cooking with? Is there really any man out there who would be angry at his wife when he learns — 20 years, a restaurant career, and two kids later — that she had a weekend dalliance on the Jersey Shore with someone else before she even started dating her future husband? Who in 2017 would possibly care? Yet David cares. Similarly, when Sergio reveals that he has gotten involved in a business venture with David not to expand his brand, but to ruin David because he’s jealous of his relationship with Claire, it strains belief. First off, why would anyone do that? Doesn’t a person at the center of a small business empire (present president excluded) have more important things to do than to get involved in something so petty? It gets even harder to believe Sergio’s motivations when he reveals, ten minutes later, that he’s not interested in any kind of long-term relationship with anyone and loves his life of babes and booze. Then why was he so fixated on Claire, who he hasn’t seen in years? It’s ridiculous.
And this is just the beginning, the problems I can describe in a couple sentences. The second half of the second act is a smorgasbord of unbelievable decision-making on just about every character’s part. None of it makes any sense.
It’s a tradition of theatergoing — and a tradition New Haven has carried on for a century — for people to sharpen the knives for the discussion afterward when a show like Beautiful Room hits a stage. One of the thrills of live theater, and especially premieres of new works, is that you never really know what you’re going to get, and Long Wharf is to be commended for putting on a brand new musical, possibly the hardest thing for a theater to do.
The reason for the excoriation here is that, in making a hash of everything, Beautiful Room comes off as mocking the big subject that it takes on: the hollowing out of New York City’s middle class, people’s increasing inability to work and live there — and in many other cities — unless they already have a big pile of cash to their name. Musicals can be uniquely affecting when they take on difficult subjects, as Stephen Sondheim has made a career of doing; for my money, 1972’s Cabaret, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is one of the more disturbing takes around on the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism. The subject of the ruination of small businesses can be mined for comedy, too. Long Wharf, in fact, did so successfully earlier in this season with its uncannily timely production of Other People’s Money. Beautiful Room takes on the same themes and just goes bust, making its attempts at humor, frankly, pretty disrespectful to the people on the receiving end of those market forces the musical blithely puts to song.
And, as with a great restaurant on its last legs, with Beautiful Room, I think of the waste: The vastly talented actors and crew whose talents were misused, the materials bought, the weeks, months, and years of time and effort that went into developing the show. And I think, too, of the next great musical by a hungry young playwright and a hungry young composer that could have had its shot here instead, and didn’t get it.
The Most Beautiful Room in New York runs through May 28 at Long Wharf Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here. To listen to an episode of WNHH radio’s “Kitchen Sync” on the show, click on or download the audio above, or check out the podcast on iTunes.