What do you get when you cross Altar Boyz with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee? This is a question I wouldn't have thought to ask myself until I saw Perfect Harmony, and the cheerful answer was staring me in the face: a musical about two a cappella singing groups vying to win an annual high school championship.
Written by director Andrew Grosso and the cast (who call themselves The Essentials), the tuner trails the five-man Acafellas and the four-woman (plus student manager) Ladies in Red as they prepare for and eventually appear in the competition. As the participants gird for battle, the audience gets to know enough about each of them -- and four adults with whom they interact -- to realize they're all adorable, yet suffering one or another typical teenage growing pain. Lassiter (Vayu O'Donnell) and Philip (Noah Weinberg) are too repressed to admit their mutual attraction; Jasper (Blake Whyte) will sing but won't speak; JB Smooter (Scott Janes) is a jock with a voice; Simon Depardieu (David Barlow) is a friendly nerd. Melody McDaniels (Autumn Dornfeld) is an uptight leader; Michaela Dhiardeaubovic (Jeanine Serralles) is a sly minx; Valerie Smooter (Margie Stokley) doesn't like being looked at; Meghan Beans (Maria Elena Ramirez) is a dancing sexpot; Kerri Taylor (Marina Squerciati) manages because her Tourette's Syndrome is a performance risk.
When they harmonize -- the two groups together or separately -- it's well-nigh perfection, as the title promises. The songs chosen to showcase their expertise include a number of familiar and pertinent chart ditties -- including Bill Withers' "Lean On Me" and George Michael's "Freedom." Since there's no band required and no call for elaborate sets, the enterprise is a potential bargain for future producers, although. rights to the songs could run into real money.
Evelyn wants to keep her son Charlie close to her. She worries when he doesn't call. When she finds out he's gotten engaged, she does everything she can to sabotage the impending nuptials. She finally convinces Charlie to come over so she can administer the kind of tender loving care that only she can give. If you're wondering what that might be, the logo design for Robert Moulthrop's promising new solo play, t.l.c., features a syringe, which should give you a clue.
The piece is a disturbing exploration into the psyche of its protagonist, expertly embodied by Margaret Daly. The actress delivers a nuanced performance, keeping the audience guessing as to how much she says is actually true (she keeps spouting contradictory information) and how stable she is mentally. While Evelyn is the only character to appear on stage, she does interact with a range of people on the phone, and she shares her inner thoughts with her goldfish, Barney.
The production, directed by Marc Silberschatz, does drag in a few places, and Evelyn's one-sided conversations with an off-stage Charlie are awkwardly handled. Still, the play manages to provide a few surprises as it wends its way towards its conclusion, and Daly's often riveting performance helps to smooth out some of the work's rough edges.
It's easy to detect the influences of everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill, and Evelyn Waugh to Whit Stillman and Jon Robin Baitz on The Infliction of Cruelty. Moreover, playwrights Andrew Unterberg and Sean McManus are obviously well-versed and very likely acquainted with and have respect for the Old and New Testaments -- even if they view them as man-made and not divine dictation.
The pair has digested a lot of material about the rich, bright, and precocious -- and crafted a genuine tragedy about the manner in which privilege and precocity can go destructively awry. Brilliant but troubled siblings Thomas, Jonathan, Prussia, and Benjamin -- joined by Benjamin's fiancée, Zoe -- are home for a dinner honoring their (unseen) composer father, but they're unable to remain with the revelers led by their (unseen) psychotherapist mother. They repeatedly seek refuge in their father's study, where the older three are planning imminent action to right a secret they've been harboring for 15 years. It's something about which Benjamin doesn't know and which he awkwardly learns. The result of the premature revelation leads to disclosure of a worse secret that forever threatens the family's future serenity.
Because the plot's influences are so conspicuous, it's tempting for an audience member to try to guess the finale to which events are pointing. But the playwrights turn out to be consummate foolers. They're helped to their doleful denouement by a handsome, polished cast -- Justin Barrett, Aimee DeShayes, Holter Graham, Pawel Szajda, and Elizabeth Van Meter -- and Joel Froomkin's insightful direction.
Bill Quigley's Don't Ask seems like the kind of nightmare scenario that a neoconservative might imagine to justify why gay people should not serve in the military. Set in present-day Iraq, the play revolves around Bobby (Daniel Dugan), a young private involved in a clandestine affair with his superior officer, Sgt. Charles Dunham (Tom Flynn). It's clear early on that the relationship has undermined the normal chain of command, as Bobby refuses to obey the sergeant's orders. However, that is apparently the least of Bobby's offenses, as details are soon revealed in regards to his involvement in prisoner abuse that resulted in the death of an Arab inmate. Bobby attempts to use his relationship with Charles to escape punishment, and the sergeant's closeted sexuality appears to make him vulnerable to blackmail.
Aside from the homophobic undercurrent of the piece, the production suffers from other problems. The play could use a lot of trimming, as much of the dialogue and character interaction feels repetitive. Additionally, the supposedly shocking revelation at the heart of the drama seems all too predictable, and the play becomes increasingly melodramatic. While director Mark Steven Robinson keeps his two actors moving about the stage to accommodate the three-quarter-round seating configuration, much of the movement seems inadequately motivated. Dugan gives Bobby a thick Southern drawl, and plays the character on the same hyperkinetic note for nearly the entire play, which gets old very fast. Flynn allows for a few more shades in his performance, but that doesn't keep the play from becoming extremely tiresome.