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A CurtainUp Review
Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine
By Elyse Sommer
I'm unfamiliar with Jordan Harrison's previous plays, but this ambitious undertaking shows him to be a writer of considerable imagination. Three pairs of actors in three connected stories meet the challenge of playing their designated main characters as well as miscellaneous supporting roles as the stories interrupt each other and jump back and forth in time and place. Thus Nelis, the flamboyant music teacher for whom the gay young man has "unspeakble feelings" heretofore sublimated by listening to Doris's song, also plays Doris's very proper grandmother. And Heisler, the Wagner smitten King Ludwig II doubles as a receptionist in the office of Vic Watts (Michael Crane), the record mogul modelled after Phil Spector
The time jumps take us from America in 1960 and the present to Bavaria in 1960. In the 1960s segment the Spector-like Vic Watts renames the fresh-voiced Doris as Darlene. No sooner is the big hit with its lush orchestration and the borrowed fragment from Wagner's "Liebestot" recorded than we're taken to Bavaria where we find the composer (David Chandler) singing that same borrowed melody for the eighteen-year-old Ludwig (Heisler). The pop music Svengali and his Trilby get the most fully developed story. Like the Wagner-King Ludwig episodes it's loosely based on historic fact: Spector became rich and famous with his girl group hits and his Big Wall sound. He had an oddball personality, married the lead singer of the Ronnettes and was wild about Wagner's music. Ludwig II was also eccentric and very much a Wagnerphile who was dethroned because he was considered too mad to rule competently.
The present day sequences about the young man on the verge of acting on his homosexual instincts and the teacher who has the wisdom and restraint not to take advantage of him, are strictly fictional, an obvious device to bridge the centuries apart, history-based "valentines" to the power and romance of music. Though the least inventive link in this musical triptych, Tom Nelis's Mr. Campani makes it rise above its inherent triteness.
The performances overall are quite fine, with Michael Crane wonderfully sleazy looking as the Spectoresque mogul. Laura Heisler is a captivating mad Ludwig in a hairdo that makes her look like an understudy for Moritz of the musical Spring Awakening.
To punch up the drama of the time travelling plots, Mr. Harrison has opted for a rather odd narrative device that has the characters more often than not speak in the third person. This evokes the sense of a staged Edward Arlington Robinson poem like"Richard Corey." However, with the help of Les Waters' direction what could easily be too precious, actually works pretty well, though it does tend to distance the audience from the characters.
The show is being given a high quality world premiere at Playwrights Horizons' main stage. Christal Weatherly has smartly outfitted the actors to fit their parts. Jane Cox's lighting bathes the stage in a spectrum of colors and Takeshi Kata's sleek scenic design sends sets popping in and out of sliding wall panels. A revolving floor section moves the actors around the stage like passengers on the flat escalator-like platforms at some airports. This makes them occasionally look like mannequins rather than flesh and blood people, but it goes with the production's unique look and feel.
For a valentine to music's creators and fans, Doris to Darlene could use a little more music than the few snatches of Wagner and pop music by Kirsten (Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin) Childs. But despite this and the fact that Harrison's meaning may not always be as crystal clear or as deep as it seems, it's consistently entertaining.