The Company You Keep
Expect nothing and hope for everything,” some sage once said about relationships. Put into practice, this kind of advice acts as psychological insulation, forming a buffer zone around the human heart. The same advice could apply to accepting gifts and attending the theater.
Anyone with knowledge of musical theater expects more than nothing from Stephen Sondheim. Even a sketchy familiarity with his work sets up some amount of anticipation that A Little Night Music, for example, will contain the perfect Desiree singing the perfect “Send in the Clowns.” (And the clips of Dame Judi Dench’s version from a London production make it clear that the perfection is in the emotional content, not the notes.) There’s so much breadth to Sondheim’s repertoire — even in such flops as Anyone Can Whistle — it’s almost scary.
Company, which opened on Broadway in 1970, took off from author George Furth’s proposition that coupling is easy — it’s commitment beyond the midnight orgasm or the morning coffee that’s hard. In dissecting the state of American marriage through Bobby, a single straight man, and the company he keeps, Missouri Repertory Theatre’s often thrilling production reveals that Sondheim’s songs get better with age while Furth’s text grows a little wearier. In a show with lines like “I’m potted” to infer inebriation and “I’m square” to describe being out of touch, it’s hard to hide the age spots — even with modern touches, such as cellular phones and bottled water.
This minor distraction aside, director Larry Carpenter has corralled a formidable cast and design team, headed up by an excellent Lewis Cleale as Bobby. Bobby is a photographer (which allows lighting designer Phil Monat to spill all the inner workings of his design right onto the stage) who is about to be the reluctant recipient of a surprise 35th birthday party. Sondheim once said that the entire show takes place in Bobby’s mind during the second it takes him to blow out the candles on his cake; it’s all a flashback, careering through the major and minor events in the lives of Bobby and his married friends.
The group consists of Harry (Jay Montgomery) and Sarah (Cathy Barnett), who are hardly whipping their various addictions; Peter (Paul Niebanck) and Susan (Cheryl Martin), who take up Bobby’s offer of a strong reefer or two; and David (Larry Cahn) and Jenny (Alice M. Vienneau), who feel that a divorce will be the perfect answer to saving their marriage. The on-again-off-again wedding of Paul (Dann Fink) and Amy (Tia Speros) finds Bobby an unwitting catalyst, and he has the same effect later on Larry (Gary Holcombe) and the palpably dissatisfied Joanne (Joy Franz).
A trio of Bobby’s conquests also pops in and out of the picture, confirming that he’s not a total victim of third-wheel syndrome. Kathy (Stephanie Nelson), Marta (Rachel Hardin) and April (Mindy Paige Davis) have varying success with Bobby; as Marta sings in “Another Hundred People,” the fact that any two people are able to connect in a city as dense and brutal as New York is a bit of a miracle.
Each couple and the three single gals all have a little Bobby story to trace, out of which come such classic songs as “Sorry-Grateful,” “The Ladies Who Lunch” and the tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today.” Act one closes with everyone in freeze frame around Bobby and his cake, and act two opens with a play on Bobby’s photography career — it’s the negative image of the same pose. The entire cast promptly joins him for the splendid “Side by Side by Side” and “What Would We Do Without You?” (cleverly choreographed by Daniel Pelzig). And before you know it, Bobby is at the precipice of the rest of his life for one of Sondheim’s most brilliant pieces, “Being Alive.”
Though some of the early scenes are paced a little sluggishly (Furth needed but never found an editor), Carpenter and his set designer, James Leonard Joy, make the most of a sectional sofa and a couple of ottomans. And for “Someone Is Waiting,” Bobby tabulates all the assets of his female friends with the help of a bevy of screens and slide projections.
Company would probably work even without a complicated Bobby, but Cleale’s interpretation is all the life insurance the show requires. He’s his own man yet exactly who his friends want him to be: the fun-house mirror in which all of their distorted beliefs look right and beautiful.