theater review

In Comes Company, and Whaddaya Get?

Katrina Lenk in Company, at the Jacobs Theatre. Photo: Ahmed Klink

In its drift-and-stop rhythms, the 1970 musical Company moves a bit like a dark ride at a carnival. The plot (there isn’t a plot) doesn’t have an engine; instead, we feel the tug of a slow but inevitable current carrying us along. Music emerges from shadow, shivering with dissonances; as it grows louder, its sound becomes intentionally tinny, braying, and mechanical. The show sort of jells around you, holding you close but keeping you at a distance. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Even the central character in Company, Bobby, is actually peripheral: a friend group’s one remaining singleton. He’s adrift, reluctantly turning 35, wandering through dates that go nowhere, visiting couples whose relationships don’t have room for a third. Through their thematically linked series of disjunct scenes, Stephen Sondheim’s songs and George Furth’s book take Bobby on an Epcot tour of the institution of marriage. We see several couples in different states of confusion, hostility, and fracture. The men are blithe or harried or roguish, and the women seem so bored! And if you’re single, the romantic options are sour and needy. There’s barely a narrative in Company, just a long dark night of the solo adult. But then, in one of the great sucker punches — one that Sondheim himself later called a cop-out — the show ends with “Being Alive,” an anthem for difficult, messy, emotional commitment. Imagine if the Christmas ghosts visited Scrooge, showed him only awful visions of charity, and then got him to buy the goose anyway. It’s a brittle, sardonic sales pitch … that works.

The British director Marianne Elliott, known best on Broadway for her Tony-winning production of Angels in America, approached it with a new idea: She would switch the main character from Bobby to Bobbie, a much-desired but noncommittal woman. Bobbie would become a New York Alice, clambering through a neon Wonderland of apartments that sometimes grow or shrink to strange proportions. The show was a hit in London, and the New York casting (Katrina Lenk in the lead; Patti LuPone as Joanne, the bitterest of Bobbie’s married friends) increased excitement to a fever pitch. Of all the productions the shutdown closed, the March 2020 suspension of Company was the most loudly lamented. I’ve known more than one theatergoer who talked about the show’s return as the beacon that got them through quarantine. Eventually, we knew, the legendary LuPone would come back and sing “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and the promise that we would someday experience her martini-fueled swagger mattered more than it should. And then, the night before it opened, Broadway’s lights dimmed in tribute to Stephen Sondheim. Here, already dressed for the wake, was the musical often seen as his self-portrait.

So the doubly primed audience at Company was, when I saw it, trembling with anticipation. Applause sometimes started before the entrances; merely the hint of a “Lunch”-y rumba could get people screaming. Here and there, this vibrating hysteria helps the show. The breathless, impossibly fast patter song “Getting Married Today” (“Listen, everybody / Look, I don’t know what you’re waiting for / a wedding, what’s a wedding? / It’s a prehistoric ritual”), surfed those waves brilliantly. Elliott does her most inventive staging here, and as the panicky almost-spouse, Jamie (Matt Doyle) hit the turbo button, we were all cheering alongside him. But the show as a whole doesn’t stand up under that tsunami of adoration.

Certainly Lenk’s own performance shrinks in the face of it. She’s gorgeous in a lipstick-red jumpsuit, her hair in smooth waves, her ambivalence about her life choices obvious. But trapped between the show and Elliott’s decisions — many of which rob the production of its sensuality and menace — she seems to lose contact with the material. Something unkind has happened, too, in the musical transpositions. “Being Alive,” for instance, asks its singer to put full power behind the tricky vowel sound in “alive.” Lenk has trouble with it, hitting her highest emotional peak while singing her least comfortable musical note. It’s weirdly sour, in the one moment that Sondheim wanted the sound to be sweet.

Elliott’s stage script interpolates text from other Furth writings and versions of the show, eliding a little, shifting a little, updating a little. Other characters have changed gender to keep Bobbie straight: the chain of girlfriends are now boyfriends (so “Barcelona” is sung by a hunky, dim airline steward rather than a spacey stewardess), and LuPone’s vulpine Joanne now tries to persuade Bobbie to sleep with her husband, rather than making her own galvanizing pass. (This turns the climax of the show away from being predatorily erotic, which is a mistake.) But what does the sex-swap mean? Gender does not fold down the middle like a Rorschach blot. There are asynchronies and asymmetries, and the team tries to recut the show to fit. Occasionally, the combination of updating — people have cell phones — and gender-switching turns dialogue into nonsense. In a scene in which Bobbie visits the buttoned-up couple David (Christopher Fitzgerald) and Jenny (Nikki Renée Daniels), we’re meant to believe that the women find it hilarious that David gets high and curses. In 2021? These are “kiss my ass”– level swears. Fitzgerald is the funniest thing on legs, but even he can’t sell us that.

And why does this Bobbie slip away from commitment even at the advanced age (dry chuckle) of 35? (It feels a missed opportunity to not simply have Bobbie be gay. It might make her isolation much more perceptible, stuck as she is with too many straight-couple friends, feeling the pressure of the sudden availability of state-sanctioned queer matrimony.) A male Bobby does not really have a biological clock; his pressure is more psychological than obstetrical. Since no one mentions kids in Sondheim’s lyrics or Furth’s book scenes, Elliott has to add a non-speaking nightmare sequence, showing Bobbie’s tug-of-war between the attractions and repulsions of having a baby. It’s clearly not much on her mind, though, since the rest of the two and a half hours of the show focuses on Bobbie’s shallowness (she isn’t with the airline guy for his conversation) and her not-that-fun alcohol situation (she brings bourbon to a friend who’s on the wagon, which is a crummy move). After my first hour with her, I stopped thinking the show knew what was going on with this version of Bobbie either. And when the character reaches the story’s key realization, Elliott gets it backwards. In the male version of the script, Bobby’s breakthrough comes when he, almost accidentally, admits he wants to be a giver as well as a taker. “But who will I take care of?” he asks, after a lifetime of dodging responsibility. Elliott swaps this, so Bobbie asks “But who will take care of me?” I hate to put so much pressure on a single line, but this gesture betrays the thinness of Elliott’s thinking. Bobbie has actually been dependent throughout, leaning on married friends for love, letting the world take her weight. Now, now we’re meant to think she’s finally ready to … be more dependent?

Still, Sondheim and Furth’s show has its own tensile strength. It shouldn’t hang together, considering how loosely they’ve bound it, but somehow it does. Watch the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the making of the cast album, and you’ll see how tough it is. Without showing us the stage or the scenes — maybe because it doesn’t show us the scenes —  that 52-minute film still manages to give us the work’s frank-and-nasty sexual politics, its seduction, its seamy underside that makes you want to look closer.

In the end, this Company is resilient too. If the production isn’t thinking carefully, at least the songs still are. In the weeks since Sondheim’s death, there have been reams of beautiful writing about him, but still, the most precise tributes come from his performers. LuPone is not just a showstopper here, not just a gravitational force, not just a plummy, hammy delight, dressed (by Bunny Christie) in a fur coat as subtle and spherical as a Hostess Sno Ball. She’s also an ideal expositor of the maestro’s work. “It’s the little things you do together,” LuPone’s Joanne crackles, rolling her eyes at the tackiness of couplehood, “that make perfect relationships.” Don’t worry about the existential stuff, Joanne advises us, there’s plenty to hold people together without worrying about the big ideas. And so it is here. Song by song by song, it’s enough. The little things they sing together still make Sondheim a joy.

Company is at the Jacobs Theatre.

In Comes Company, and Whaddaya Get?