After the final curtain for The People in the Picture, the couple seated next to me saw that I had been taking notes and asked if I was a critic. I said yes, but that they might not like reading what I had to say about the show. I told them: "I wish the authors had the talent to do the story justice."
The People in the Picture is about a group of performers with a Jewish theater and film company in Warsaw, Poland during World War II. Subject matter doesn't get more noble than that, but as I sat watching the show, I found myself increasingly frustrated that it was so weak.
In researching this review, I saw a picture of that man, the male member of the couple to whom I had been speaking, on the Roundabout Theatre Company Web site. Turns out he was composer Artie Butler, who collaborated on the music to The People in the Picture with Mike Stoller of Leiber and Stoller fame.
I felt like a schmuck. Especially since Mr. Butler was wiping his eyes as I spoke, and had gone out of his way to introduce me to a Holocaust survivor who was seated in front of us, whose young granddaughter is a member of the cast.
But, here's the thing: shows with noble subject matter don't get a critical pass. We've seen many plays, musicals, movies, books, and other works based on the events of the Holocaust, and just because artists set out with honorable intentions, that doesn't mean their works are off-limits for critical analysis. (I do have to wonder, though, about a ticketing procedure that allows critics to be seated next to authors.)
To be honest, although The People in the Picture received pretty scathing reviews, I felt that almost everything in the production was working quite well - except the book and the lyrics. Yeah, that's a fairly major liability. But the story is a promising one, ripe with potential for pathos. Also, the show employs what could have been an effective flashback device, with deceased characters coming to life to help the story alternate between the war and the 1970s, which is essentially the "present day" in the context of the show.
But somehow all that promise gets lost in the woefully maladroit efforts of librettist/lyricist Iris Rainer Dart, whose most notable work to date is the novel Beaches, upon which that treacly, sappy, shudder-inducing Bette Midler movie is based.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the show's central twist in the paragraphs below.]
For starters, the show is chockablock with the hoariest of yuk-yuk jokes. One character, referring to the "ch" sound that's common in the Yiddish tongue, states that "you have to clear your throat so much, they should call it Flemish." The lyrics are either lazy (rhyming "see us" with "ideas"), bromidic ("Loving life was our way to fight"), or cringe-worthy. (One song about Jews in Hollywood warns that the folks out west might try to reinstate one's foreskin.)
What's more, the show hinges on one supposedly shameful secret that the central character, Raisal, is hiding from her granddaughter. But the "secret," once revealed, is actually hiding in plain sight, and the revelation doesn't merit the concomitant hand-wringing. During the war, Raisal asks a Christian couple to raise her young daughter, to prevent the child from starving. Years later, she goes back to reclaim the girl as her own, and somehow this causes a rift between Raisal and her daughter. But it's not entirely clear why she would keep this a secret, nor why it would be a point of familial contention. Raisal acted to save her daughter's life; I saw no potential for shame, which made the show's denouement a dramatic letdown.
Even more damning, Rainer Dart's libretto is full of what she clearly intended to be portentous and dramatic developments, but the events often arise without development. At one point, Raisal turns to her daughter's nanny and says, "You've been so good to us" and we've only just met her in this particular scene. Raisal announces "I love you so much" to the man who is supposedly the love of her life, but the romance comes out of nowhere. This robs the show's one memorable song of its full impact. In the middle of act two, Raisal sings a stirring ballad called "Selective Memory," which essentially creates a parallel between the current-day Raisal, who is experiencing the onset of dementia, and the flashback Raisal, who feels robbed of the full potential of this romance because of the circumstances of war. Because we have no emotional investment in this relationship, it's hard to feel the full impact of the loss.
Director Leonard Foglia imbues the piece with lots of fluid staging, but he's immeasurably hampered in this effort by the show's choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he crafted the wonderfully dynamic dance sequences for In the Heights, which he unfortunately recycled for 9 to 5, to anachronistic and unintentionally hilarious effect. His work here is closer to the latter than the former, at times awkward, at other times laughably inappropriate. The dance serves little obvious dramatic function, merely distracting from rather than adding to the presentation. At times, this is not entirely Blankenbuehler's fault, for example, during the head-shakingly misconceived tap-dancing-rabbi number, "The Dybbuk." Other instances would seem to fall directly in his lap, as in the opening sequence to act two, in which dancers quizzically mime the process of creating time capsules for the oppressed members of the Warsaw ghetto.
As has so often been the case this season, the talented cast members fight a losing battle to make the material work. (See Baby It's You, Catch Me If You Can, Wonderland, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, etc.) Particularly herculean in her efforts is the marvelous Donna Murphy, who is, quite frankly, a force of nature in everything she does. Ms. Murphy received the show's only Tony nomination this morning, and rightfully so.
Also lost amid the dreck are such stalwart professionals as Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien, who deserve major kudos for saying their often leaden lines with straight faces. Among the relative newcomers is Nicole Parker, one of my favorite cast members for the unfortunately departed "Mad TV." Parker is saddled with some of the worst lyrics in the show, and I'm really hoping that this show won't hurt her career. She's a genuinely talented comedian, singer, and actress, not that this show ever gives her a full chance to demonstrate those skills.
So, my deepest apologies, Mr. Butler, for my social faux pas. But I think we both are owed an apology from whoever thought it was a good idea to seat you among the critics.