It’s hard to imagine any clamor for a revival of “They’re Playing Our Song,” one of the weaker long-run ’70s tuners and one whose qualities have not ripened over time. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine its central roles — a mismatched pair of songwriters darting in and out of each other’s orbit — graced with more sensitivity or show business gusto than what Jason Alexander and Stephanie J. Block bring to helmer Lonny Price’s Reprise remounting. The stars are a pleasure and the production is tastefully mounted, but there’s just no triumphing over this material.
Inspired — odd word to use in this context — by the real-life romance back in the day of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, Neil Simon’s libretto purports to reveal the bittersweet chaos caused when partners in art opt to become partners in passion. If that were actually the story told, there would be real heartbreak when Alexander’s tightly-wound tunesmith Vernon and Block’s daffy, Annie Hall-ish wordsmith Sonia find they can no longer create while in thrall to each other.
Trouble is, we see almost nothing of their work sessions which, if fully dramatized, could have offered a delightfully offbeat twist on the battle of the sexes. Instead, we’re treated to ceaseless cliched flirtation and artificial, brittle ripostes between a typical Simon odd couple, laced with innumerable conversations about the unseen “Leon,” Sonia’s supposed ex to whom she is still linked by miles of piano wire.
The running gag of Sonia’s dropping everything to babysit this needy nitwit strains believability, as does her affectation of borrowing actor friends’ costumes for street clothes. (As a hit songwriter already, she has no need of wacky hand-me-downs.) These and other vagaries of the team’s relationship possess no independent life; they’re merely circumstances contrived for an evening’s worth of plot.
Hamlisch and Sager provide a wash of generic ’70s pop, one personality-less tune after another (including two new interpolated ballads and a Volga Boatmen comical dirge reviling Leon). Aside from the title number, a disco-joyful celebration of hearing one’s work in public that inspires Josh Rhodes’most buoyant choreography, Sonia’s offhanded jibe about hearing Vernon’s melodies in every dental chair rings uncomfortably true.
The stars do what they can. No one has a droller way with a putdown (aimed at himself or at others) than Alexander, whose urbanity keeps memories of “Seinfeld” and George Costanza firmly at bay. And as in “9 to 5” and “The Boy From Oz,” Block shows she possesses everything required of a first rank musical star — pipes, pep, comic timing, emotional availability — except, to date, the good luck to be handed a first rank role she can hit out of the park and make her own.
Points to Price for his scrupulous attention to period detail and refusal to kid or condescend to what is, let’s face it, an extremely mockable decade. Points taken away for treating the principals’ act two confrontations as if they’re Chekhovian battles demanding deliberate pacing and lengthy pauses. Care about it or not, Vernon and Sonia’s story simply isn’t rich enough to sustain almost three hours of running time.