Rent-Free

 

Like a great dumb puppy, Jonathon Larson’s Rent bound onto Broadway, all fidgety and overeager, impossible to dislike but tough to really love, feeling — as puppies do — just one big thing at any given moment and going after that big thing as though it were a chew toy, gnawing it until the squeak died. When that big idea was the tragedy of AIDS or our need for art, Rent ruled; when it was My friends are so cool that our quest for art is art, it stumbled into instantly dated voice-of-a-generation silliness. Despite the show’s big-heartedness, I have a hard time taking seriously characters who sing song after song about not having it in themselves to sit down and write … a song.

Damn, dog. Just carry a tape recorder.

Rent serves as both prelude and punch line to Tick, Tick … Boom!, a thin but engaging sample of Larson’s apprenticeship. Written after the failure of his never-produced Superbia, it’s the story of Larson turning 30, feeling old and wrestling with whether to abandon la vie boheme for corporate cash. We know as we watch that, if it weren’t for Rent, nobody would ever bother to stage this. We also know that, because of Rent, everything will work out fine for Jon, our lead.

Or his career, anyway. Larson’s death — right before Rent‘s premiere — hangs gray and heavy over both shows. In each, an artist is just coming to understand his promise; we know that with time, experience, and a willingness to seek inspiration outside of his own life, he might have been as great as Renties proclaim him.

As Jon, John-Michael Zuerlein brings a shrugging charisma to a character that could seem self-involved. Even hitting the big notes, he’s likably offhand, sending a wash of feeling through the crowd without taking his hands from his pockets. Skipping from mood to mood, he’s more nimble than the book, which forces him to usher us from the tentative “Real Life” — a swelling, moving number that’s in many ways the heart of the show — to “Sugar,” a throwaway about the shame of buying Twinkies.

Sarah Crawford is first-rate in a number of roles, most notably as Susan, Jon’s girlfriend, who’s after him to leave New York. Crawford sings well, but her finest moments showcase her comic chops. As a marketing director leasing a nonsensical seminar, she nails that strain of educated idiocy peculiar to executive types. (Unfortunately, her solo number is a snooze until the end.) As Michael, an old friend of Jon’s who has fled the theater for a life in business, the fun Tim Scott experiments with gravitas, bringing weight to a character who seems, at first, to serve mostly as Jon’s there but by the grace of God go I. He’s fine at playing it straight, but the audience warms when he cuts loose, as he does on several of the best numbers, and thrills when he gets to bellow, as he does but once.

Though all three sing well, they sound best together. Scott and Zuerlein, in particular, have an easy camaraderie, their voices wrapping warmly around each other. It’s all brisk, sometimes a treat and never a chore. Gary Mosby’s art deco cityscapes strike the right note of urbane romance. Director Cynthia Levin and choreographer Steven Eubank move the actors with crisp purpose. And the band — directed by Anthony T. Edwards and featuring the piano of Daniel Doss — comes as close as musical theater can to actually rocking without sounding like Meat Loaf.

The real star is Larson, though. Writing about his own experiences forced Larson into a satiric humility. His problems weren’t the world’s or a generation’s. They were an artist’s. The show lacks Rent‘s cloying groupthink, its conviction that any team of creative bohos is, by birthright, owed our reverence. No such bullshit, here. Instead, we get the only advice artists should need: “Focus on something important! Do your work!”

If your tastes run darker — say, to brutal Irish melodrama — I’d like to suggest that you check out the Wyandotte Players’ take on Martin McDonagh’s scalding The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

I’d like to, but I can’t.

As anyone lucky enough to catch last summer’s The Cripple of Inishmaan (or the Unicorn’s memorable take on Beauty Queen a few years back) recalls, McDonagh’s bristling dialogue comes fast and sharp, loaded with repetition, misunderstandings and jolts of spite. It’s the talk of people who, having little else to do, have made an art of picking at (but never listening to) each other.

In this production, which is saturated with an incongruous American longing for Ireland, the talk comes as slow as cable news crawls, stretching the play to well over two hours. The actors have their moments, but they speak each cruelty as if these characters have never said these things. They fight the way Midwesterners would: thinking things over, feeling each nuance, letting a one-Mississippi-two-Mississippi pass before firing back.

They seem to wish that these things didn’t have to be said. Trouble is, in McDonagh’s world, little but these things are said. They’re the solace, not the problem.

Categories: A&E, Stage