Richard Nelson, a prolific playwright to begin with, is developing a new sideline in putting the big guns of modern literature on the musical stage. Nelson’s version of James Joyce’s story “The Dead” came first, and now Nelson and composer Ricky Ian Gordon have turned to Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” or “In Search of Lost Time,” as it is now often denoted, less elegantly but more correctly. Next stop, Virginia Woolf? T.S. Eliot?
But “My Life With Albertine,” a world-preem production at Playwrights Horizons, where Nelson’s skillful gloss on Joyce began life before moving to Broadway probably will not enjoy the unlikely but inspiriting success of that musical. It, too, is a delicate, stylishly presented production that attempts to honor both the spirit and the letter of the original (not quite all the letter, naturally). But it is both static and choppy, and ultimately pedantic in its attempts to impart the reflections on love’s illusions and life’s mysteries that are developed with such tender rapture throughout Proust’s novel.
Sensibly enough, Nelson and Gordon concentrate on just one strand of the novel: The show is based on “the ‘Albertine’ sections” of “Remembrance of Things Past.” But the book isn’t a grapefruit, easily partitioned. Each strand informs and is informed by the rest. In removing the story of the young Marcel’s unhappy obsession with a sexually mysterious young vamp from the fabric of the novel, Nelson turns it into a vague, episodic anecdote that doesn’t offer much in the way of fresh romantic insight or dramatic content. Divorced from the fabric of the novel that amplified its resonance, its meanings must be explained to us at regular junctures by the evening’s narrator, played by Brent Carver.
This is not to say Nelson doesn’t make conscientious attempts to translate the book’s style and themes more subtly. Carver, a skilled musical performer not in his best voice here, plays the older Marcel, who is presenting his history with Albertine as an informal entertainment staged in the salon of a Parisian apartment. It’s an evocative idea: the past as an alchemical fiction made of truth and perception that we restage endlessly in our memories.
Thomas Lynch’s gorgeous set features a proscenium ornately painted in rich, dark hues surrounded by the furnishings of the salon itself. When they are not enacting episodes from Marcel’s relationship with Albertine, or adding their voices to those of the singers at center stage, the show’s small cast sits on furniture arranged along the walls of the elegantly detailed room, reading or knitting in the dim pools of James F. Ingalls’ caressing, golden light. The small orchestra — which performs Bruce Coughlin’s delicate orchestrations beautifully — sits in a sort of mezzanine at the back. The handsome whole makes for a charming stage picture and, you’d expect, a smoothly flowing pace.
But the show never develops any momentum; it flits awkwardly between song, story and narration, and is continually being annotated for us by its two commentators: Carver’s elder Marcel, looking back, and the young Marcel, played by Chad Kimball, a cherubic young performer best known as the scene-stealing cow in Broadway’s recent “Into the Woods.” Their presence is an attempt to re-create the novel’s own dual narrative voice, but their constant commentary keeps getting between us and the musical, which seems to unfold blurrily in the background. The musical’s diffuse style can be said to reproduced the book’s flickering between past and present, experience and perception, but the effect is to keep us from engaging deeply with the material.
The songs come in two flavors: jaunty music-hall numbers that are mostly presented as colorful diversion (Albertine and girls romping Isadora Duncan-style, a place-setting singsong number about the summery charms of the beach resort where much of the action takes place) or mournful ruminations on love and loneliness. Gordon has a sophisticated command of harmonic language, but the shimmering sonorities of his songs never develop much momentum, either. When required to concoct a traditional melody he’s at a loss: Those pastiche ditties are almost comically simplistic. Nelson’s lyrics tend to be emotionally blunt and short-phrased: “On any given day/half the human race/is in tears, is in tears.” The score should be the binding element uniting the show’s diffuse narrative, but it is more like gentle, self-effacing underscoring.
Marcel’s tempestuous relationship with Albertine is depicted in brief, unsatisfactory scenes that seem to be over before they’ve begun. He is continually rhapsodizing about Albertine’s beauty and its uncanny hold over him, but they never seem to look at each other — he’s too busy talking to us, or to his older self. Small wonder she strays into the embrace of a mysterious Sapphic sisterhood led by Emily Skinner’s voluptuous Mademoiselle Lea.
And the driving emotional impetus of the story — Marcel’s maddening inability to fully know Albertine’s heart, to penetrate to the core of her shifting emotional and sexual loyalties — is automatically undermined by her emphatic presence onstage, not to mention the casting of Kelli O’Hara. Seen on Broadway in “Sweet Smell of Success,” O’Hara has a bright, clear soprano, and sings her solos with radiant charm. But she’s hardly the enticing minx Marcel keeps describing. “Every time I look I see a different Albertine,” he sings in wonder, but every time we look we see the same fresh-scrubbed, innocent Irish beauty.
In fact, the theater’s very actuality is pretty un-Proustian. In his book “Proust’s Way,” critic Roger Shattuck writes, “The very resistance of his work to simplification and analysis constitutes its most evident general characteristic.” Any attempt to render the novel in another form obviously involves large doses of both, and the theater, in particular, uses material things to create its illusions, and takes place in real time. Those factors tend to work against Proust’s central themes.
This may be why Nelson works overtime to fill his text with the kind of philosophical ruminations that fill the novel. But outside the expansive frame of the book, they seem like little Proustian Post-Its: “There is nothing like desire for preventing the things we say from bearing any resemblance to what we have on our minds,” “Life is cruel, and so are we,” etc. Some seem to have been badly translated: “After the over-exertion of the flesh, that object of our momentary senility will soon become but another for whom it shall be an effort to give more than a kiss on the brow.” Oh, brother. Proust’s ornate prose sounds heavy and pompous when it’s presented in soundbites and spoken aloud.
Over the years various playwrights and filmmakers have been enticed by “Remembrance’s” exotic panoply of characters and rich emotional currents to attempt translation into other media; for the most part they’ve been defeated, and we can now add Nelson and Gordon to the list of talents vanquished by the book’s fecundity. Maybe it’s time to recognize he’s simply irreducible.