There is scarcely a moment in the Classic Stage Company’s understated production of Assassins when you aren’t thinking about last year. The show isn’t a flawless revival, but it’s so perfectly suited to the moment that quibbles about anemic staging and singing can wait. When the news broadcast images of the insurrection on January 6, the whole world glimpsed America’s ugly fairground heart, the way even her riots smell of funnel cake and the arcade. Assassins saw that truth more than 30 years ago. I couldn’t decide if seeing it post–January 6 was soothing, since it implies that all this mayhem will comfortably be read as history someday, or stunningly bleak. I lean bleak. Early on, someone sings, “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along / Doesn’t stop the story — story’s pretty strong.” Quick, ask yourself: Do you believe that?
The framework of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s darkly comic 1990 musical is history’s shooting gallery — in a limbolike amusement park, a Proprietor (Eddie Cooper) hands out weapons to nine assassins who emerge to take a pop at their chosen U.S. president. The assassins are wobbly funhouse-mirror reflections of real figures, who are themselves wobbly funhouse-mirror reflections of the country. Some are what we might now call incels, like John Hinckley Jr. (Adam Chanler-Berat); others are celebrity obsessed, like the failed hijacker Samuel Byck (Andy Grotelueschen). At only one moment do we hear real conviction, when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (Brandon Uranowitz) sings about the metal in his gun, connecting his violence to the inhumanity of the bosses in the mines. For much of the musical, little links the assassins besides their targets. But then they rally to sing “There’s another national anthem, folks / For those that never win / For the suckers, for the pikers / For the ones who might have been.” Director John Doyle — known for his less-is-more Sondheim productions — has them marching across a stage painted like an American flag, but we get it, we get it. This is us.
Sondheim plays dazzling games with pastiche throughout. Sometimes he does this to embed us in an era (e.g., Hinckley sings “Unworthy of Your Love,” a schmoopy love song that could have been on Top 40 radio when Hinckley was trying to kill Ronald Reagan), sometimes to link to our traditions of musical bombast (soured versions of “Hail to the Chief”). Sondheim has called Assassins a “collage,” rather than a chronological revue, and Weidman has the narratives overlap and impinge on one another. A Balladeer (Ethan Slater) tries to keep the stories straight by singing us twangy, folksy portraits that tell the truth about the characters, though his homespun morality flails helplessly against his subjects’ delusions. Besides the Proprietor and the Balladeer, there’s yet another quasi-narrator figure: the elegant, evil John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale). Booth doesn’t play the same game as the others — he moves like a devil out of his own tale and into others’ stories, insinuating himself into their scenes, often coaxing them into murder. Three such carnival barkers may seem like too many for a show that’s around 100 minutes long, but that’s a carnival for you — everyone’s trying to get your attention at once.
When Assassins first appeared Off Broadway, the response was muddy. Were the jokes too jokey? The monstrous facts handled too cavalierly? Certainly, many of the nine shooters have been forgotten in footnotes, and Weidman’s book gives us only the barest sketches to remember them by. Charles Guiteau (Will Swenson), who killed James Garfield, comes through clearly as a megalomaniac and mountebank, but Weidman is fuzzier about the two women who tried to shoot Gerald Ford, so he turns them into a wacky double act. Sara Jane Moore (the deft Judy Kuhn) and Squeaky Fromme (Tavi Gevinson) meet — as they never did in life — to talk about their daddy issues and take potshots at a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Doyle’s staging makes comedy particularly difficult, with the audience on three sides of a long catwalk stage. It leaves even small scenes oddly directionless, as though there’s no good seat in the tiny house. So these sections seem a little lost, a little soft, a little undercooked.
The musical itself is in thrall to the charismatics in this rogue’s gallery. A sweaty, slyly funny Swenson gives the brassiest performance and trumpets out Guiteau’s scaffold song like an 11-o’clock number sung by a man with only a minute left to live. The always hilarious Grotelueschen nails his short scene in which Byck records a petulant message to Leonard Bernstein using West Side Story lyrics … written by one Stephen Sondheim. The other actors, though, follow the Doyle anti-spectacle plan and underplay. Doyle always does this: He strips his productions down to just shy of a staged concert reading. It can work! It worked for Sweeney Todd; it worked for Carmen Jones. Here it has mixed results. And look, it may be best that he refrains from big gestures since the active choices he does make in Assassins are, frankly, weird. For instance, the musicians are dressed in red or white jumpsuits. At one point a red jumpsuited musician lies down in a red stripe on the flag-painted stage, and a white jumpsuit hides in a white stripe. What? Why?
The main casualty of the Doyle method is the sound. Given the three-sided stage and scant amplification from Matt Stine and Sam Kusnetz, singers who don’t go huge disappear every time they turn away. (Using statistics and my understanding of the thrust stage, this is why I couldn’t hear Slater’s sweet voice two-thirds of the time.) There’s only one person who can ride the line between the musical’s requirements and Doyle’s style: the riveting Pasquale, whose sound gets only more powerful as he gets quieter. He’s giving the performance he might give in a living room, but whenever he enters, all the other particles onstage skitter and dance, as if someone’s sliding a magnet through iron filings. With his stern, angelic face and voice as light as … well … light, Pasquale makes Booth into an unapologetic Lucifer. Is it his fault his fall took the whole country down with him forever? He certainly doesn’t think so.
It did, though. Booth shot Lincoln in 1865, and we have been caught in his vainglorious, paranoid, negationist riptide ever since. Near the end of Assassins, Booth approaches a suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald (Slater again), who needs some prodding to shoot JFK in Dealey Plaza. In 1990, when the show made its debut Off Broadway, the audience would have filled in their own memories of the day the president was killed; now we’re nearly 60 years away from the grassy knoll, and the musical can’t rely on that as easily for its shock effects. Of course, there’s something closer at hand to think about. It has been only a couple of weeks since a crowd of QAnon believers went to Dealey Plaza to await JFK Jr., believing he would return from the dead to join Donald Trump on a ticket. There were hundreds of them. Sondheim and Weidman can try to come up with outlandish scenarios, like a bunch of ghosts urging Oswald to take up his rifle, but reality is always a thousand steps ahead, making up darker and weirder and more deluded stories. America is so quick to believe! America is so ready to pick up a gun! Step right up.
Assassins is at Classic Stage Company through January 29.