Theater Review: Found Is ‘a Delight’

Slackers don’t usually get very far in musicals. From Oklahoma! to Gypsy and beyond, American-style can-do-ism is built into the form; it’s hard to mumble a showstopper. And yet here is Found, the touching and clever new musical at the Atlantic, about a bunch of 20-somethings with nearly flatline ambitions. You would think that its authors — Eli Bolin (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree (book) — would have found it nearly impossible to scale theatrical songs to such characters. But when Davy, their protagonist, gets fired first thing from his barely-a-job writing listings for a Chicago alt-weekly and the scope of his world shrinks to the diameter of a joint, they find the perfect expression of his downsize dreams in an “I Want” song called “Weird Day.” “I want do something that I love,” he sings, “and do it with people that I love.” Found is the American musical’s first emotionally satisfying case for thinking small — and perhaps therefore the first emotionally satisfying musical for the post-bust generation.

That sense of scale is determined not just by an appreciation for the characters’ circumstances, but by the story’s unusual materials and methodology. Both are introduced immediately in David Korins’s charming set, every surface of which is completely encrusted with the colorful paper detritus of daily life: reward offers, homework, abandoned Post-its, and the like. The plot is similarly decoupaged. On his weird day, after being fired, Davy discovers a note on his windshield. Obviously meant for someone else, it’s the rant of a woman berating her boyfriend at length for cheating — but then adding at the end: “P.S.: Page me later.” Soon Davy starts to notice other bits of paper floating lost through the world and realizes he’s stumbled on a form of concrete poetry. With the encouragement of Mikey D, a big gay bear of a friend since childhood, and their roommate Denise, a romantic interest who refuses to act interested, the accidental find becomes a hobby, then a collection, and, over the course of the first act, a cult-hit magazine called Found.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that the magazine really exists and is indeed the work of a man named Davy Rothbart and his friends. Biographies are nothing new in musicals. What’s genuinely thrilling is that the authors have taken the “form follows function” precept to a logical extreme, telling much of the tale through the found notes themselves. Instead of traditional exposition, Found will usually let an item from Davy’s real-life collection do at least some of the talking. When he is introducing Mikey D, for instance, he tells us that Mikey D’s father was an alcoholic but defers to other actors, popping in from the wings with bits of anonymous letters and broadsides, for the rest. (“Dad you are the worst dad never drink again that’s what ruined me. Fuck you.”) Many of these are musicalized as ditties or components of ingenious longer sequences; Bolin’s score is also a collage. And while it takes some getting used to, you gradually come to accept and even relish this distributed method of storytelling (especially when the found items are funny). Indeed, you may find that though the exact circumstances and even the names are different from what’s being illustrated, these notes reflect the idea that each person’s life has a great deal more in common with other people’s than we may like to think. If not interchangeable, we are, at times, inter-expressive. That’s a wild notion for a musical to pursue.

That wildness never lets up; the finale of Act One, for instance, takes place — for reasons the plot itself can barely justify — during a children’s theater production of Johnny Tremain. (It’s one of the funniest, most ludicrous musical sequences I’ve ever seen.) But two big problems do arise. One is that as the story expands in Act Two, it (but not the storytelling method) also grows more conventional: The magazine’s success comes with familiar temptations for Davy, and at a steep price for his friends. Some of this is nevertheless beautifully done. When Denise is faced with the full extent of what she’s lost — Davy is now involved with a foxy Hollywood producer — she sings a number called “Barf Bag Breakup,” whose lyrics come entirely from a note found, as the title suggests, on a plane:

I think this is it for us.
It has been for a while.
You don’t even know how much
Of a tremendous loss this is for me.

Bolin imposes just enough form (and a real gift of fresh musicality) on the heartbreaking prose to make it into a deeply effective song. But at the same time, such effects are being undercut by the suspicion that the material is not as authentic as the method. To my knowledge, most of the “conventional” story elements of Found — the love triangle, a TV pilot, even Mikey D — are fiction. And though this may be unexceptional in a standard musical, it feels like a bit of a dodge in one that explicitly sets out to find the poetry in the unshaped, unrhymed utterances of real people. (There’s even a pre-show announcement about it.) You begin to question the shortcuts and musical-theater formulas you had previously let pass as life imitating art. And from there, it is only a step to the realization that many of the choices are being driven by the pre-existing found notes, as if the best ones were collected and the plot was manipulated mostly to make them useful. It’s as jury-rigged as a jukebox musical — even the Johnny Tremain segment. Function was following form all along.

So be it. The show is nevertheless a delight, and if Overtree’s production could use some tightening, its components are at an unusually high level. Nick Blaemire as Davy, Daniel Everidge as Mikey D, Barrett Wilbert Weed as Denise, and Betsy Morgan as the Hollywood girlfriend all handle with aplomb the difficult challenge of making small-scale characters seem real even while singing in a musical. The ensemble of six are remarkable at playing and differentiating dozens of other characters — some just the one-sentence “voices” of found notes. Everything technical — from the unusually natural sound design to the orchestrations played by a combo of six arranged in little dugouts on the set, like more found objects — is top-notch, with special notice to the movement by modern dance choreographer Monica Bill Barnes. As befits this material, she builds from the inside out, with an emphasis on personal gesture instead social forms.

I wish that Bell (one of the creators of [title of show]) and Overtree had managed to maintain that stance in the book as well; sometimes I wondered if the material had been overworkshopped, some of its wildness pounded out of it for commercial reasons or in deference to received notions of proper storytelling. But they were working with a found source that was at least as much of a challenge as an opportunity, and the issues I raise here probably could not have been resolved without extinguishing its charm. What they’ve managed, though imperfect, is still unusually lovely: a little bit of a stunt, but also a little bit great.

Found is at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through November 9.

Theater Review: Found