Polly Pen’s chamber musicals drawn from offbeat subjects have been a mainstay of the Vineyard Theater, which had a minor hit a decade ago with her first, “Goblin Market.” For the new “Bed and Sofa,” Pen and librettist Laurence Klavan have turned to another obscure source, in this case Abram Room’s 1926 Russian silent film about what happens when a married couple living in cramped Moscow quarters take in a boarder.
Pen’s previous works could be self-consciously arty and precious enough to promote tooth decay; subtitling “Bed and Sofa” “a silent movie opera” and featuring a working H.O. model train in the set didn’t raise one’s hopes.
Aspiring to chamber opera, the new piece is through-written and all but free of melody, employing repeated phrases and sung motifs to tell its intimate story: Ludmilla (Terri Klausner, in a welcome return to the stage) is languishing in a desultory marriage to construction worker Nikolai (Michael X. Martin), a man given to reminding her to scrub the floor.
When Nikolai runs into Volodya (Jason Workman), a sensitive, homeless printer he knew from the war, Nikolai offers the sofa in their tiny, one-roomapartment to get him through the Moscow housing crunch. When Nikolai is called out of town on a job, the inevitable occurs, and on his return, the husband finds himself removed to the sofa.
“Perhaps this would be the time for a very tiny Anna Karenina to throw herself in front of that little train,” suggests a voice from a radio that only works for such arch intrusions. But the story is by no means over. Volodya soon proves himself to be as much of a boor as Nikolai; they drink and play checkers. Ludmilla, pregnant, leaves to have an abortion but doesn’t go through with it.
In G.W. Mercier’s monochrome set and costumes (the only color is the dusty rose of Ludmilla’s faded hat) and Phil Monat’s subtle lighting scheme, there’s a lovely unity and logic that honors the show’s origins. And even through Pen and Klavan’s travesty of this material you can sense Room’s sympathy for these three ordinary people whose emotional lives are as cramped as their physical environs, and especially for Ludmilla, who grabs at passion when the possibility unexpectedly and somewhat comically presents itself.
Klausner, Martin and Workman handle the singing beautifully, even if what they’re singing isn’t beautiful and the excruciating neuroticism of Andre Ernotte’s staging could drive one mad. It’s a one-two punch, of endlessly repeated phrases sung by actors hopping around the set in fits and starts. There are moments when the humor seems organic. Mostly, however, the sensibility of “Bed and Sofa” is tongue-in-cheek and utterly on the wrong track.