Robby Benson and Karla DeVitoin Open Heart(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Robby Benson and Karla DeVito
in Open Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
During the '70s and early '80s, when Robby Benson was making movies like Ode to Billy Joe, Ice Castles, and The Chosen, he was known as a teenage heartthrob. From birth, however, the throb of his own heart was problematic and has so far required two surgical operations -- one in which a cow's heart valve was inserted and one in which a valve from a cadaver was used. If interviews with him are to be believed -- and there's no reason why they shouldn't be -- he expects that he's not yet finished with such procedures.

Experiences such as this are the kind that concentrate one's attention and sort one's priorities, and Benson doesn't sound like an exception to that rule. Open Heart, the musical that he's written and in which he's acting, singing, and almost dancing, tells the story of a television hyphenate with little time for his family. Jimmy, as he's called, collapses on the set of the dire-sounding program one day and, while waiting to be transported to the hospital, slips into an unconscious state wherein he watches his past and his prospects for a future pass before him in random order.

Benson -- who's married to his leading lady, Karla DeVito -- looks to be using his life as a warning to other men so wrapped up in their respective careers that they're in danger of missing life's real stuff. Trouble is, deploying a bad musical as his warning isn't going to get him very far with his heartfelt intentions. The only warning to be heeded here is the one to avoid this desolate show.

For the record, producer-writer-star-whatever Jimmy (Benson) is having such trouble with his hit sitcom that he repeatedly puts off phone calls from wife Jayne (DeVito) in order to squabble with network executive Ricky (Stan Brown). He's further infuriated when he learns that network moguls want him to add a three-year-old boy to the cast even though they know that Jimmy's own three-year-old is deceased and that his death is still the cause of much parental grief. Heart-stricken in mid-tantrum over this and other frustrations, Jimmy is led to review his experiences by Ricky, who, in Jimmy's stupor, appears as something of a gay Virgil. Ricky's purpose is to lead Jimmy either to recovery or death. Which eventuality occurs won't be revealed here, nor will any more particulars about the death of Jimmy's son be passed along, in order to spare those with a low regard for the maudlin.

While Jimmy contemplates what has happened to him and what might happen, he's variously visited by a cow (perhaps the one who donated Benson's first valve transplant), hiked up on an operating table for open heart surgery, asked to rate a song about painting that Jayne sings in her anguish, confronted by an officious Asian nurse who can't pronounce her "L"s, importuned by his neglected daughter, and thrust into a boxing ring by Don King! He also endures many other tribulations, none of which makes any more sense than the first batch mentioned. When Benson runs out of ideas for further (mis)adventures -- mercifully, that's when less than 90 minutes have passed -- he calls it quits.

Little can be said for the batch of lite-rock songs that Benson has written for the show. In fact, calling them songs may be going a bit too far; notes with words attached is about right. Benson manages to rhyme "genuine" twice but not well either time. What can be said in favor of these ditties is that DeVito, who once toured with Meatloaf, makes them listenable. (Benson has said that he's wanted to write a show for his wife for some time; he may consider this one a gift, but audiences may not share the opinion.) Stan Brown also scores when he belts a song about a knock-out king with some knock-out notes. As for Benson, who appeared on Broadway in The Rothschilds and The Pirates of Penzance and provided the voice for the male title character in Beauty and the Beast, he sings less well than his colleagues.

Karla DeVito, Robby Benson, and Stan Brownin Open Heart(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Karla DeVito, Robby Benson, and Stan Brown
in Open Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The show's musical direction is by Kevin Farrell, who works diligently upstage at a Kawai SF2000; the set, with its TV studio look, is by Michael Brown; the ill-fitting costumes are by Anne Hould-Ward; the okay lighting is by Ken Billington; and the sound design is by Aural Fixation. Throughout the proceedings, a television is wheeled around; on it, some interesting Batwin & Robin Productions visuals flicker brightly. What choreography the show contains is the work of Luis Perez.

Leaving the theater, my dumbstruck companion wondered aloud, "How does something like this get on?" The somethings-like-these that get on year after year, decade after decade can be mystifying, but in this instance a theory about the benefits of networking can be advanced. Benson, who lives in North Carolina and teaches there, has regularly been directing episodes of various television series in Hollywood. While working on a series called Thunder Alley, he became acquainted with producer Matt Williams. Williams, who directed Open Heart, is married to Angelina Fiordellisi, the artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theatre -- where, of course, Open Heart is playing. Bingo! A production.

To all of these people, one is tempted to say about this watered-down blend of All That Jazz and Regarding Henry, "Have a heart!"