Musicals are generally expected to heighten emotions, to transport the characters to some elevated plane of self-expression, whether it’s love or loss, laughs or sorrow. So it seems an almost radical step when a show is as deliberately and uniformly subdued as “A Catered Affair,” adapted from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1955 teleplay and Gore Vidal’s screenplay for the movie the following year. Composer John Bucchino’s melodious score never seeks to overpower the action but instead to feed the dramatic texture, subtly interwoven with book writer Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue to create a show that’s less a conventional musical than a semi-sung play.
Even on the relatively cozy stage of the Walter Kerr — a playhouse only recently given over to musicals — the quietness and intimacy of “A Catered Affair” echo in ways not always helpful to the work. And handsome as they are, the collaborative pictures conjured by David Gallo’s Bronx apartment block set, Zachary Borovay’s sepia-toned projections and Brian MacDevitt’s muted lighting sometimes further the impression of a miniaturist portrait on a big canvas.
But even if the show’s ideal staging might be as a pared-down chamber piece years from now, it’s a testament to the rigorously unflashy approach of Bucchino, Fierstein and a disciplined cast that its sentiments never for a moment feel manufactured.
A bittersweet reflection on the complexities of marriage and relationships, this small but satisfying drama forgoes big emotional impact for poignant understatement. It’s true to the spirit of Chayefsky’s writing and evocative of a period in American life when the chasm between upper and lower middle class was increasingly apparent. We might now be in the midst of an encroaching recession rather than a boom, but the parallels make this perhaps the perfect show for a new period of economic anxiety and widening class divides.
Musical traditionalists will no doubt complain about the absence of upbeat, hummable numbers and the frugality of applause breaks, but Bucchino’s work is entirely of a piece with the direction and writing. Whether it’s in the exquisite underscoring or the introspective songs, the minor-key beauty of the music as heard in Jonathan Tunick’s delicate, filigreed orchestrations captivates while remaining determinedly unintrusive.
A songwriter whose work has been widely embraced by cabaret performers, Bucchino is new to musical theater and a welcome addition to the post-Sondheim generation of thoughtful composers that includes Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jeanine Tesori and Jason Robert Brown. The odds that “A Catered Affair” will find mainstream acceptance may be slim, but the show commands respect by further challenging standard preconceptions of how the Broadway musical should sound, function and feel.
John Doyle is a Brit director whose presentational style has primarily been seen here in his celebrated revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” — in which actors doubled as musicians — and his stand-and-deliver approach may not be the most dynamic solution for such sober material. But it crucially provides the actors with the stillness and breathing room needed to reveal character shadings.
This is true particularly of Faith Prince as the drama’s stoic center, Aggie, a Bronx housewife inured to a life of self-denial, scraping to feed and clothe her family on the earnings of her sullen cab-driver husband Tom (Tom Wopat). While Fierstein has remained largely faithful to the 1956 movie (which starred Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine), he has freshened the scar caused by the death of Aggie and Tom’s son in the Korean War. (The second son from the screen version has been excised.)
The government bereavement check resulting from that loss becomes a chief source of conflict. Tom wants it to buy joint ownership in a taxi, providing self-employment and increased income, but Aggie wants it to pay for a lavish wedding reception for their daughter Janey (Leslie Kritzer), setting the tone for her marriage with the kind of joyful sendoff she and Tom never had.
Her mother’s daughter, pragmatic Janey had decided on a no-frills ceremony with schoolteacher fiance Ralph (underused Matt Cavenaugh), but more for Aggie’s sake than her own, she allows herself to get caught up in the ballooning plans.
There are deep psychological nuances to be mined here, and Fierstein and Bucchino meticulously excavate the feelings of characters for whom suppressed emotion and sacrifice are an ineluctable part of life. The similarities between mother and daughter are traced both in book scenes and in songs like Prince’s “Married” or Kritzer’s “One White Dress,” with both the older and younger woman viewing life and marital commitment with eyes wide open.
With her one plain, serviceable dress (Ann Hould-Ward’s eloquent costumes are spot-on) and mousy hair piled up for practicality, Aggie is without airs or expectations, but her disappointment in life hasn’t smothered her pride. The tender toughness of Prince’s measured performance makes it easy to empathize with her rash decision to barge ahead with plans for a grand wedding — partly to make amends for the wan romance of her own marriage, partly to compensate for having favored her late son over her daughter, and partly to stanch her humiliation in front of Ralph’s ostentatious parents (Lori Wilner, Philip Hoffman), doing nicely in real estate.
As she sings “Vision,” while the components of a perfect wedding come together in her mind, Prince’s restrained rapture is lovely. When the show does transport in traditional musical mode, the actress is its primary vehicle.
Expanding her range from her usual comic roles, Kritzer is also effective. She brings a down-to-earth warmth and sensitivity to self-possessed Janey that adds emotional weight to her increasing alarm as the wedding plans cause escalating friction. And Wopat is enormously moving as a burdened, uncommunicative man who absorbs his wife’s rebukes with only an occasional rumble until her insinuation that there’s no love between them causes him to erupt in “I Stayed.”
In addition to centralizing the dead son, the most significant change from the movie is Fierstein’s role for himself as Aggie’s “confirmed bachelor” brother, Winston. He’s equally touchy about the threat of being excluded from an event for “Immediate Family,” but unlike the asexual interloper played by Barry Fitzgerald (named Jack in the film), Winston is unapologetically gay and grappling with his own offstage relationship issues. With his raspy deadpan and self-aggrandizing way with a quick retort, Fierstein brings a leavening strain of humor that keeps the melancholy material from becoming morose.
There are weaknesses, like an unprepossessing opening number in “Partners,” and a prosaic roller-coaster metaphor for life in the concluding song, “Coney Island.” But the show resonates due to its modesty, grace, gentleness and emotional integrity — qualities not often front and center in musicals.