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Master Class: Sondheim on Sondheim and The Aliens

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Master Class: <em>Sondheim on Sondheim</em> and <em>The Aliens</em>

Signal the thunderclaps: Stephen Sondheim turned 80 this year, and everyone is partyin’ like it’s 1999 for the man. As well they should. His work still speaks for itself and is utterly relevant after so many years, and just two weeks ago he still had four shows (including this one) on the boards that he contributed to in some way. Frequent collaborator James Lapine’s Sondheim on Sondheim is sort of a blue-chip-cast, high-tech version of the revue Putting It Together, though this time firmly attuned to the iPad age. It seems an odd fit for a man who writes his scores on yellow legal pads, back flat on a sofa, but the treat is hearing him speak for himself on everything from his rocky childhood (with a particularly unloving mother) to his pretty straightforward writing approaches to finally finding love at age 60. The biggest surprise of the evening is that the man doesn’t really seem the least bit tortured. Could it be that a musical genius is really just a pretty adjusted, prolific fellow? To be honest, it’s a bit of a relief, and removes the portent from an admittedly longish barrage of songs from the Sondheim catalogue.

The eight performers (Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Norm Lewis, Leslie Kritzer, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey, and Matthew Scott), taking literal turns on a rotating set by Beowulf Boritt, essay the master’s work from his very first ditty (“I’ll Meet You at the Donut”) all the way to the recent Road Show, which proved he’s as vital as ever. Of course, in any revue-style show, you’re going to run the gamut of output, and this one’s no exception. You get everything from staggering (Lewis’s gentle, stirringly delivered rendition of “Being Alive”) to deft (Morton’s marvelous “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from Merrily We Roll Along) to the odd (Williams relives her Miss America wild days stripteasing to a restored number from Follies) to the just-plain wrongheaded (Company’s great “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” has now become a silly, charmless duet for Wopat and Cook). And veteran costumer Susan Hilferty should have known better than to outfit the regal Ms. Cook (still in glorious voice at age 82) in an black, Ingmar Bergman-esque hooded getup that threatens to turn a dear ballad from Passion into a near-outtake from something like Spamalot.

There’s far too little Sweeney Todd for my taste (only one damn song!), and the usually adept Wopat often seems like he’d rather be anywhere else (except, ironically, in the sole Sweeney number), but overall the production shouldn’t embarrass the ol’ SS. He’s probably so used to hackneyed cabaret versions of his standards anyway that a little pro sheen only makes it smoother. And what attractive sheen it has—a veritable cast of cuteness (and, in the cases of Mackey and Scott, downright hotness) that doesn’t hammer the presentation into American Idol vocal gymnastics and quivering lips. To quote a Sondheim lyric and succinctly sum up my thoughts: I’ll drink to that.

The AliensSo what of the modern masters-to-be? For my dough, there’s no newbie playwright more apt to take the reins than Annie Baker. Not yet 30, her voice sounds the loudest to me simply because she isn’t one to dust off the megaphone to provide it, and her latest knockout, The Aliens, makes it a three-for-three in just as many short years. Following her shrewd, humanistic female-tinged study of self-examination in Body Awareness and last fall’s scintillating theater-class dissection of insecurity and longing through games and make-believe in the unforgettable Circle Mirror Transformation (a worthy Pulitzer should-be if I ever saw one), The Aliens may be a bit less ambitious than those works, but no less worthwhile.

If Body was her female-centric opus and Circle her artist-centric one, then this one is clearly her guy piece de resistance—a single-set look at a pair of Godot-like musician/scruffians, KJ (Michael Chernus) and Jasper (Erin Gann), who loiter around the back of a Vermont coffeehouse and slowly befriend the timid, impressionable teen Evan (Dane DeHaan) who has just started work there. Through a series of vignettes, taking place very close together, we see a bond develop between the trio—all different versions of nowhere boys—and how their makeshift friendship begins to define them. If this all sounds a little cuddly, never fear, Baker’s writing is as pungent as ever. As with her startlingly realized characters of other plays (who also inhabit the same Vermont universe as these three fellows), Baker doesn’t turn them into mouthpieces for inter-generational thought. With a pristine lack of judgment, she lets them be inarticulate at times and poignant at others, and are just as often interchangeable. And her uses of silence to speak louder than words (done so beautifully in Circle) is omnipresent here as well, as small rituals such as sharing a cigarette and watching 4th of July fireworks become mini-arias in unforced human interaction.

The title is lifted from Charles Bukowski (whom Evan eventually regards as “great…he says ’cunt’ a lot”), and the author himself might have been proud of Baker’s wonderful misfits. And they couldn’t possibly be better played: Gann makes Jasper a hipster with soul, and Chernus, with his reservoir of choice line deliveries, turns KJ into a truly three-dimensional tragic figure—an underachieving, over-medicated shell of a man in need of some life lessons. DeHaan, though, seizes the heart as the endearingly naïve Evan. His deliveries of such lines as “I kind of hate America” carry such youthful weight as to be completely believable, and his bravura second-act scene in which he tries to relay his sadness over a recent incident through a voicemail message is gorgeously rendered and teeming with adolescent reality.

Sam Gold, who also helmed Circle, is ably backed by lighting designer Tyler Micoleau, whose night-falling effect at the end of act one is subtly dazzling, and set designer Andrew Lieberman, who gets the details of the coffeehouse back area just right (even the cool little gate KJ and Jasper scale seems right on). But if anyone knows the meaning of the just-right, it’s the already prolific Baker. Acidly observant, but armed with a beating heart as big as the moon, thunderclaps just might be in order in another 50 years.

Sondheim on Sondheim is now playing at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street) in New York City through June 27. Schedule: Tue - Sat at 8pm, Wed, Sat & Sun at 2pm. Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, one intermission. For tickets, click here; The Aliens is now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place near 7th Ave South) in New York City and continues until May 30. Schedule: Mon, Wed - Sat at 8pm, Sun at 3pm. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission. For tickets, click here.