Scott Dicken, Emily Kosloski,and Tim Maloney in Bed and Sofa.
Scott Dicken, Emily Kosloski,
and Tim Maloney in Bed and Sofa.
Silence probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when someone is thinking about writing a new musical; unless, of course, that someone is composer Polly Pen. Silence was exactly what was on Pen's mind when she agreed to collaborate with writer Laurence Klavan on musicalizing an obscure 1926 Russian silent film called Bed and Sofa. Because a silent movie was the source material, Pen wanted silence to be an integral part of the piece. "The idea was to explore silence compositionally," she has been quoted as saying.

Back in 1926, Bed and Sofa so seriously offended Soviet cinema officials with its candid portrayal of the sexual dilemmas confronting a married couple and a single man, and the bleak conditions under which they lived, that it was banned after just two weeks. Fifty years later, the film was rediscovered, and it has since become regarded as a masterpiece of its era. Pen and Klavan's musical adaptation of the film garnered Pen a 1996 Obie Award for her enchanting score, and Klavan two Drama Desk nominations for his book and lyrics. Now, Bed and Sofa is making its West Coast premiere in a highly engaging production deftly directed by caryn morse desai (sic) at International City Theatre in Long Beach.

In keeping with silent movie tradition, the intermissionless musical projects title cards onto a screen above scenic designer Bradley Kaye's cutout design of the Moscow skyline. This information helps move us through time and surrounding events. In addition, actress/voiceover artist Jodi Carlisle provides humorous narration that serves as the story's comic relief.

Bed and Sofa concerns Ludmilla (Emily Kosloski) and Nikolai (Scott Dicken), who live in a small Moscow apartment furnished with little more than the basic necessities. Ludmilla is unhappy in her marriage to Nikolai, a self-involved construction worker whom she dryly addresses as "Your Highness." Silence actually plays a major role in the opening of the show, as we watch the couple quietly starting their day, communicating with looks and gestures but very few words. This convention is surprisingly effective and never boring.

When Nikolai runs into an old friend, Volodya (Tim Maloney), who has just come off the train and is searching for a place to live, he invites the young man home. Volodya can have the sofa, he says, while he and Ludmilla take the bed. With Moscow in the midst of a terrible housing shortage, Volodya gratefully accepts. It doesn't take long for romance to bloom between Ludmilla and the stranger with the "dark hair and sensitive face." When Nikolai is called away for several weeks on a construction job, Ludmilla and Volodya put up little more than token resistance to the inevitable. Soon, the sofa is empty, and the lovers are sharing the bed.

Nikolai's early return forces their secret out into the open. Though both men confess their love for her, Ludmilla has already made her decision: Because of the housing shortage Nikolai can stay, but he will take the sofa while she and Volodya share the bed. To distract his rival, Nikolai begins to engage Volodya in endless games of checkers. This is a clever sequence, as the checkers and their colors become representative of the teams: Nikolai, the aggressor, holds black checkers up to his eyes as he mockingly searches the room; Volodya, the prey, is red--the color of blood and love. When Ludmilla dons a battered red hat and dances around the room as Nikolai barks "King me!" at every turn, her allegiance is made clear.

But things become more complicated when Ludmilla discovers she's pregnant. Though the men unite and tell her what must be done, Ludmilla again makes her own decision--one unheard of for women in 1926.

Except for the silences, which convey as much (if not more) than the score, Bed and Sofa is a virtually sung-thru show. There is an overall theme here of basic need which is carried over into Klavan's simple but heartfelt lyrics; shelter is as basic a need for the body as love is for the soul, and both of these necessities are represented here. Pen's melodies bounce all around, playing with rhythms and timings and illustrating the complex emotions of the piece. Love is difficult, and it rarely runs smooth. The same can be said of Pen's music.

Vocally, this trio is well matched. Kosloski's silky soprano slides easily around Dicken's rumbling bass and blends beautifully with Maloney's bright, clear tenor. If there's anything to quibble about, it's the overabundance of color on the set and on the actors. Theirs is meant to be a bleak, hardscrabble existence. Instead, everyone looks rosy and healthy, and the apartment--especially the gorgeous but totally out-of-place red sofa--is too well kept. Nothing here shows any wear and tear. A little distressing of costumes and set would go a long way.

But this is a minor consideration when balanced against the whole of the show. Considering its triumph last year with another Polly Pen show, Goblin Market, ICT might well consider presenting one of her musicals annually. That would carry them through another four years--and hopefully, by then, there would be even more shows waiting in the wings.