There is no such thing as a wholly true play. The nature of the theater distorts reality, finding all sorts of holes in the historical record and inexorably filling them in. (Actors have to do something between their lines.) When the play is merely “based on” truth, the difficulties multiply, and a matter of degree becomes a matter of kind. The compelling new musical Invisible Thread is “inspired by true events” — so a projection tells us; Griffin Matthews, its protagonist and leading actor and co-author, goes further, announcing in the show’s first moment that this is, in fact, his story. Well, no. It may, in part, be his, but it is also, for better and worse, a lot of people’s; there are seven other named characters plus an ensemble onstage, and several collaborators, including the not-exactly-recessive director Diane Paulus, hovering behind it. All of them clamor for their say — or, because this is a musical, their sing. So one of the problems (among many pleasures) of Invisible Thread is a kind of diplopia: the blurry vision that results when a true story is told in ways that are fundamentally misaligned.
I don’t mean that Invisible Thread lies. Griffin and his co-author, Matt Gould, are far too earnest for that. A quick internet search will confirm the basic outline of their story. Griffin, a mostly nonworking young actor living in Queens in 2005, decides to serve the poor and explore his roots (he’s black) by signing up for a six-week stint building a school in Uganda. Gould, unaccountably called Ryan here, is his Jewish boyfriend, an aspiring musical theater composer “teaching Mommy & Me classes on the Upper East Side with lots of toddlers and their nannies who don’t speak English.” He’s horrified:
Ryan: You bought a ticket to “Africa” without even talking to me?
Griffin: Did you just put Africa into quotations? You told me to volunteer!
Ryan: I meant in the South Bronx!
Griffin: I am scared to go to the South Bronx!
Griffin’s African adventure — he says it’s like Birthright for blacks — quickly turns into something more meaningful when, in the streets of Kampala, he meets a few of the city’s thousands of teenagers orphaned by war, poverty, and AIDS. Soon he has set up a makeshift school to teach them — but what? Apparently, it’s not so much math and geography as self-regard and musical-theater uplift. These turn out to be useful as the ragtag band soon faces various challenges, including a charity scam, a fire, and a dangerous journey. In any case, when Ryan shows up in Uganda only to find Griffin in what appears, unconvincingly, to be a compromising situation, the gap between the “real” problems of the world and the personal problems of privileged New Yorkers causes a rift between them, as it does in our experience of the show. It is not giving away too much to say that their problems, if not ours, are resolved by their co-founding of an organization to provide ongoing aid to the Ugandan kids, and by the realization that their creative gifts can be engaged to further it.
That organization, Uganda Project, exists; the musical began as a fundraising effort after the philanthropy crunch of 2008. Invisible Thread (which in development at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, was called Witness Uganda) has been handsomely and expensively mounted at Second Stage. Griffin is in almost every scene of the show, so we know he exists, too, and Gould, in his capacity as musical director, sits at a keyboard in an onstage aerie, playing his pleasant world-pop/Africana/lite-folk-rock score along with the rest of an eight-piece band. At the end of the show a series of slides update us on the things the African characters were able to achieve thanks to Uganda Project; one, for instance, became a doctor. But for all this underlining of actuality, the experience of watching the show is oddly doubtful. Even accounting for the way drama combines characters and compresses timelines, squeezing complicated series of small events into single breakthrough moments, I simply didn’t believe, as I watched, in the coincidences of the plot and the ecstasies of the choral singing, any more than I believed in the fake red dirt of Tom Pye’s set, which does not kick up annoying dust the way real dirt would.
I wouldn’t have cared about these useful contrivances if they were not so aggressively promoted as fact. Even then, I might have let them go had they not opened doorways to further questions. The treatment of Griffin and Ryan as gay men, for instance, is unconvincing; the African characters go from condemning homosexuality as a capital offense to what looks like complete acceptance in a single undramatized step. The disappearance of one of the kids initiates a second-act arc that even after reading the script I could make no sense of. Like the silly caught-in-the-clinch red herring mentioned above, these little compromises and accommodations to genre also raise a question of proportion; the recurrent focus on the Americans’ personal dramas (and, god help us, their Broadway ambitions) while Ugandans are being beaten and prostituted under their noses gets embarrassing. It also leaves the character of Ryan mostly out in the cold. And though I am not cynical about the value of individual initiative in bettering the world, I couldn’t help thinking that if Griffin weren’t such a self-deprecating type (and Matthews, playing himself, such a charming performer) we might see the whole musical as an elaborate humblebrag. Look at me, I couldn’t even get cast as a drug dealer on Law & Order, so I started this little nonprofit that helps lots of African kids.
We don’t think that, much, because the production, overcompensating for the possibility, leaves no room for unauthorized ideas. As is her style, Paulus has staged Invisible Thread within an inch of its life; there is never a dull moment or a part of the picture unactivated. Even without the acrobats she trucked in to save Pippin, the performance style she gets from the indefatigable ensemble (and from the travelogue choreography of Sergio Trujillo and Darrell Grand Moultrie) is mostly circuslike: extreme and full-out and contorted by effort. Everyone is selling everything at top energy, even when what’s for sale is humility or pathos or innocence or shy welcome. This is perhaps the show’s greatest falseness, because people are actually subtler and more jumbled than that. The relentless ingratiation of the superb singing, as well as, alas, the typically mushy lyrics, only make that problem worse. (“There is a long invisible thread / that wraps around my heart / and wraps around your head,” goes the title number. Isn’t that unsanitary?) And though the book is line-by-line smart enough to incorporate the story’s natural ironies, song by song and scene by scene those ironies get flattened. Over the course of the whole show, they’re hammered so hard they disappear beneath the fake red dirt.
But a show that is less than excellent, and less than true, need not be less than worthwhile. If I wanted to turn down the show’s volume sometimes (literally, too — it’s over-amped) I never wanted to turn it off. We critics, on behalf of our idea of audiences, frequently bemoan the glut of false, feel-good musicals that tell us domestic stories we already know by heart. The authors of Invisible Thread have listened to that complaint, at least with half an ear, and responded. Is it not better that the result is, if still a false, feel-good musical, at least a little about somebody else?
Invisible Thread is at the Second Stage Theatre through January 3.