Whether you will like These Paper Bullets! — the new Bard–on–Carnaby Street confection at the Atlantic — will probably depend on how much you like Much Ado About Nothing. Depend inversely, I mean. If that most deeply human of Shakespeare’s comedies means little to you, its adaptation as a play with music (not really a musical) may amuse. Otherwise you are likely to find it, as I did, leaden, juvenile, chaotic, and nearly intolerable, except when it sings. Then, it’s nice.
For that, give credit to Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day fame, whose nine songs, with titles like “Give It All to You” and “Regretfully Yours,” efficiently recall the pleasures of the Beatles circa 1964. For the rest, well, even the playwright, Rolin Jones, seems conflicted. The credit for his text variously states that it is by him, adapted by him, or stolen by him. (Was “diminished by” not an option?) In any case, having settled on the idea of resetting Much Ado among the mods of London, he seems to have spent most of his time hunting for ways to satirize, or at least make puns about, two disparate things at the same time. Much Ado’s military men become the Quartos, a rock foursome from Liverpool: Ben, Claude, Pedro, and Balth in place of Shakespeare’s Benedick, Claudio, Don Pedro, and, promoted from a lowlier role, Balthasar. (Amusingly, Pedro, the drummer, has replaced his half-brother Don Best in the group, a joke Beatlemaniacs will get.) Meanwhile, Beatrice and Hero, the virtuous women of Messina, have become a Mary Quant–like couturier named Bea and her miniskirted model, Higgy — a portmanteau reference, no doubt, to Twiggy. This triangulation of sources quickly gets tiresome, and by the time the Keystone Kops crew of Dogberry and Co. are reduced to Scotland Yard bumblers under the supervision of Douglas Berry, you may wonder why Jones even bothered.
Certainly it’s not for the romance of Bea and Ben, which, though drolly enacted by Nicole Parker and Justin Kirk, and though liberally quoting or adapting lines from the original, is barely a patch on it. (Their “merry war” becomes a “Mersey war.”) Nor does Jones have anything to add to Much Ado’s larger considerations of the nature of love: the way, in bringing us to the edge of our humanity, it threatens to push us into the void. Rather, the adaptation, almost by design, can do nothing but subtract. The Quartos are, after all, just lads, cads, and bounders; they have not seen anything as horrible as war to sharpen their souls and earn their supposed wit. And Higgy and her train of pouty hangers-on are anything but high-minded, unless being perpetually drunk and coked-up counts. When Bea defends the wronged Higgy as “a fantastic girl” you wonder what she’s talking about; everyone here is more or less stupid. Which is a terrible basis for adapting a play that takes intelligence as a premise, feeling its way toward insight.
Abetted by the director Jackson Gay, Jones attempts to replace the jettisoned wit with madcap activity, but despite Michael Yeargan’s clever turntable stage the result is just clutter. Among the weird fillers and digressions randomly disgorged are Vidal Sassoon, a hawk puppet, a television correspondent, bugged lampshades, and Queen Elizabeth. Some of these are briefly diverting, which is more than can be said for the Scotland Yard scenes; with their failed attempts at Monty Python silliness they are even more excruciating than the parallel Dogberry scenes usually are. Trying to get through them, and the rest of the play, is like trying to make your way out of a hoarder’s garage. Even Jones seems to feel that way, eventually unable to be bothered with sustaining his conceit. At the moment that Shakespeare’s drama reaches its high point of insight, These Paper Bullets! throws in the towel:
BEN: Since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore ah fuck it … Man’s … a giddy stupid thing, ain’t he? … That’s all I’ve got.
Indeed. Luckily, Armstrong comes to the rescue with a reprise of a terrific number called “Keeps Me Satisfied.” It may not be deathless poetry (“Oh girl, it’s so lonely without you by my side”) but it’s catchy and well crafted and cleanly hits its target. That’s more than the play, whose title is the only thing apt about it, manages all evening.
These Paper Bullets! is at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater through January 10.