At their best, the Transport Group can breathe life into an emotionally driven script by providing it with an inventive, technically proficient staging blessedly devoid of winking irony. With the irredeemably maudlin “Crossing Brooklyn,” though, talented company a.d. Jack Cummings III has found the upper limits of even his ability to salt bland emotion. Lead Jenny Fellner does her best with the humorless character of a cripplingly anxious 9/11 survivor, but writer Laura Harrington has set the stakes so low there’s not one iota of dramatic tension to move the plot along.
As “Crossing Brooklyn” opens, it’s hard to imagine what could go wrong. The characters stand behind the school desks that make up most of Sandra Goldmark’s well-observed, economical set and sing the opening bars. Human bodies and desks are then assembled into the bed where elementary school teachers Des (Jenny Fellner) and AJ (Bryce Ryness) will wake up to radio blurbs about color-coded terror alerts and anthrax, subtly dating the show to the minute.
Around them stand the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, Des’ bete noire after the World Trade Center bombing forced her into frightened isolation in her Prospect Heights apartment. AJ, her patient husband, has dealt with his wife’s emotional paralysis for so long the cracks in their relationship are starting to show — today’s the day she has to make it across the bridge to sign her teaching contract for the next year, an action on which the continuation of their marriage seems to hinge.
For the next hour and a half, we wait for the show to begin. It would help if Harrington knew whether the play was primarily about AJ or Des. Instead she seems to switch characters not when the plotting demands it, but when she gets bored.
It’s hard to blame her. Des doesn’t have a therapist, meds or any other help besides her own decidedly domitable will to survive; after a while, her aggressive codependency is indistinguishable from plain old narcissism. Admittedly, Harrington has set herself a difficult goal with the character; it’s almost impossible to make a person with this kind of mental illness sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though — Rolin Jones did it with “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” mostly by making his character amused and annoyed with her own shortcomings.
Here, nobody cracks a smile until the halfway point — that’s when we meet AJ’s precocious student Kevin (J. Bradley Bowers), who is dealing with his own emotional problems in a much more compelling and interesting way than Des.
The relationship expressed by Ryness and 12-year-old Bowers (recently of “Tarzan”) is the best thing about “Crossing Brooklyn” and a good template for what the play might have been. Acting with children is usually a thankless task; here, though, Ryness is getting great stuff from his co-star and responding accordingly, absorbing Bowers’ smart remarks and directionless rage and rebounding with sympathy and some confidences of his own. It almost rescues the show.
Ultimately, though, this is a musical, and it folds like a cheap suit when Harrington adds to the frail story the weight of the angsty teenage-poetry lyrics that painfully name-check “Rent” (“Everyday I say remember all the seasons of love ahead…”). Jenny Geiring, who writes for Audra McDonald, provides the score with a few clever harmonizations, but there’s not an upbeat number in the bunch. In fact, the songs here are all so similar the result can’t quite be codified into separate numbers.
It’s a shame the Transport Group’s considerable resources went to serve this particular show, because Cummings, Goldmark, lighting designer Shana Albery, and choreographer Scott Rink have given the unworthy work its best possible staging.
Lighting designers would be remiss not to go just to see how cleverly the few units are used; set designers and directors should check it out just to see how to create forests, cafes and bedrooms out of rope and a few desks. But all the well-conceived designs and performances still sound out hollow notes in this empty, indulgent script.