There was great promise in the pairing of writer Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss,””Longtime Companion”) and Joe Mantello, the actor (“Angels in America”) turned director of the impressive productions of John Robin Baitz’s “Three Hotels” and Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” The project was a revival of Lucas’ 1984 play, “Blue Window,” featuring some of the best acting talent New York has to offer and the estimable resources of the Manhattan Theater Club. So why is the result such a wild misfire?
The obvious, if unsatisfying answer, is that Mantello is not Norman Rene, the director who is to Lucas what Hal Prince was to the young Stephen Sondheim. Clearly, others have had success staging Sondheim, and there’s no reason to think the same isn’t true of Lucas. But Mantello hasn’t captured the fragile, evanescent sensibility that gives Lucas’ plays their compelling mix of urgency and poignance.
You know the minute you enter the theater and see Robert Brill’s sleek, airy set that this “Blue Window” has polish and shimmer. But it’s all surface, a gloss that reveals not the play’s depths but its flaws.
The writing is suffused with the spirit of Sondheim: “Blue Window” opens as seven young Manhattanites are dressing for a book party. Against a wash of different kinds of music, each of the characters is established in staccato conversational snippets and flash-by images: Libby (J. Smith-Cameron), the hostess, fretting with the punch and obviously terrified, and her best friend Griever (John Benjamin Hickey), who can’t tear himself away from the mirror or resist doing a Diana Ross imitation with the blow dryer, although he’s expected at Libby’s in time to help out.
There’s Alice (Ellen McLaughlin), the acerbic writer for whomthe party is being given, and her lover Boo (Allison Janney), accustomed to being little more , socially, than a springboard for Alice. And there’s Tom (David Warshofsky), a studio musician and would-be composer who lives with Emily (Johanna Day), a secretary, and who is struggling to write a song “about going nowhere” that won’t sound like a folk song. And finally, there’s the mysterious, silent Norbert (David Aaron Baker), an instructor in sky diving.
When it finally does get underway at Libby’s, the party is a modest success, constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of mismatched guests, sparked tensions and, above all, the overriding sense that something is very wrong with Libby — something far greater than the fact that she has broken a cap just before her guests have arrived and spends the entire party with a finger awkwardly covering her mouth.
Mantello and his terrific company get almost all of this right — the disconnectedness; the disproportionate energy spent getting up for the party as opposed to actually being in the party; the quick dissipation when the party is over. It’s reinforced in Brian MacDevitt’s cool lighting scheme and Laura Cunningham’s costumes, clothes that look, for the most part, draped on yet not lived in.
But Lucas draws a silken thread through his characters, linking them invisibly scene by scene. There comes a point in all of his plays when he gives a little tug. Suddenly you see the connections, and they can be unbearably tender and moving. The first time a blue window is mentioned, it’s in Norbert’s description of the space through which a sky diver leaps from an airplane; his description of free fall is both exhilarating and scary — a favorite image of Lucas.
Libby doesn’t explain why the party has been such a momentous event until afterward, during a private, tentative moment with Norbert when the free-fall image takes on a much darker significance. In the original production of this play, on a tiny Off Broadway stage and with a much less tested group of actors, Libby’s story nevertheless reverberated back through everything else that had transpired during the brief evening.
But here that harrowing revelation is as detached as everything that has gone on before. We feel cheated, having spent a lot of time with people whose concerns suddenly seem quite trivial and then being sent home. As if to compensate, the play has been given a slightly more hopeful ending. The final image however, remains that of Griever, dancing alone, as if floating away by himself, another isolated figure. No tug. No resonance.