Jeremiah Miller, Lacey Kohl, and John Cullum in Wilder(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jeremiah Miller, Lacey Kohl, and John Cullum in Wilder
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
One would like to think of oneself as eager to keep up with the times, but the recent trend in musicals so gloomy and serious about their intentions that they discourage the audience from applauding at the end of numbers has become a challenge to this humble scribe. That is to say, whatever pleasures and/or insights into the human condition that the frenzied and glum chamber musical Wilder might boast elude me.

The eponymous title character is a naive Colorado lad reaching puberty in the Great Depression just when his flim-flamming father is sent to prison and his mother abandons the boy to take a job as a maid -- or so she says. Wilder Jessup (Jeremiah Miller), whose tale is told as an 80-minute flashback by his older self (John Cullum), is sent to wash dishes in a bordello. His attic squat there happens to be directly above a room in which hooker Melora Mayfield (Lacey Kohl, who also plays mother Jessie Jessup) entertains gentleman callers.

Longing to join Melora's customers, Wilder eventually does so. The busy floozy seems to have feelings for the boy but that fact little avails either of them. Nor does much else ease Wilder's tormented adolescence. He receives envelopes from prison but, because father Jessup can't write, the one missive that Wilder displays contains a broken toothpick, a Chesterfield butt, and a picture of Freddie Bartholomew (!) ripped from a newspaper. Wilder hears nothing from his mother but gets to see her after visiting his incarcerated father and wheedling out of him the information on Mrs. Jessup's whereabouts. He finds her hooking on the corner of Denver's Ninth and Main. Wilder tries catechisms on her and, failing to reclaim her, decides to stand in for her with the next approaching john -- who happens to look like the older Wilder (John Cullum, who plays Melora's johns, too.) There ensues a kiss that's meant to be violent, shocking, and incestuous.

Discovering that mom is a prostitute underlines one of the main themes that librettist Erin Cressida Wilson has woven into Wilder: the madonna/whore view of women. Wilson wants to see how it's sorted out by a boy who's coming to grips with his confusing sexuality. The poor kid has idealized his mother only to discover that she sells herself, so he can't resist the same compulsion to idealize Melora. With Old Wilder moping around the set that G.W. Mercier has designed to serve as various bedrooms and even a prison cell, it's unclear whether Wilder ever does emerge from the other side of the dilemma.

For that matter, it's unclear how much of Wilder's story has actually taken place: Towards the end of the musical, Old Wilder delivers an unexpected speech in which he says of Melora's entrance into his life and disappearance from it, "How do I write about a moment that passed, how it stayed in my veins for the rest of my life...how will I tell about the night she poured all the boyhood out of me? And how will I then explain that none of this dream ever happened, how do you make a love story out of loneliness, because wouldn't you want her to have loved me?"

Huh?! What does Wilson think she's achieving by turning Melora into the face in the misty light that Johnny Mercer wrote about when he put words to David Raksin's theme for the movie Laura? In terms of the effect Melora has on Wilder's maturing, is there that big a difference between the woman's being real or imagined? Why bother us with this late-in-the-day revelation? While we're posing questions, let's wonder why Wilson sets up such a bleak situation for Wilder. She depicts the Depression as a time when families were torn apart, which ain't necessarily so; families back then did what they could to remain together, as illustrated jovially in the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play You Can't Take It With You.

Wilson is the attention-getting author of the murky Trail of Her Inner Thigh and, more recently, of the admired Secretary screenplay (adapted from Mary Gaitskill's short story). She is intrigued by the knotty methods in which the sexes relate, and she's undoubtedly correct in believing romantic and libidinous involvements are more intricate than people wish; we're all Wilders in that respect. But Wilson is only intermittently successful at making her bristly points. In Wilder, she's tedious and plodding about the matter, dreaming up tiresome tropes like an ice-skater (also embodied by Kohl) who materializes from a snow dome to serve as a masturbation fantasy for the adolescent Wilder.

Jeremiah Miller and Lacey Kohl in Wilder(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jeremiah Miller and Lacey Kohl in Wilder
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Nor does Wilson get much help from songwriters Mike Craver and Jack Herrick, who evince paltry affect as they sit stage right and play the score on keyboards, guitars, and penny-whistle. Craver and Herrick have been Red Clay Ramblers members and, in that capacity, wrote and sang the saucy songs for Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. But there's nothing saucy about the tunes here; they are so undistinguished as to sound like one long, monotonous song. (One clunky lyric goes, "Loneliness is automatic when you live in an attic.") Just because Wilder is about a boy having the joy squeezed from him doesn't mean that the songs in which he expresses his feelings have to be joyless; Tom Waits has proved otherwise with his songs on grim subject matter. Over the years, some songwriters have been mocked for calculating their scores with the express intention of having the melodies hummed as patrons exit the theater, but no one should be encouraged to go to the other extreme and write songs that we couldn't possibly hum after one or two hearings. Where's the benefit in that?

Traditionally, Playwrights Horizons has been dedicated to producing new musicals and to making those productions look good. That's the case here: John Cullum, Lacey Kohl, and Jeremiah Miller do their best to infuse Wilson's script with vitality under Lisa Portes's sincere direction and with the help of Jane Comfort's musical staging. Cullum, whose list of credits is now four decades long, does '30s hat-in-hand duty well, and Miller as the younger Wilder is the picture of wounded innocence. Kohl, who has red hair that puts Rita Hayworth to shame, is a lively presence. The production is evocative and smart, with G.W. Mercier designing Depression clothes and a set with a house-shaped window frame in the middle of it. Jane Cox has provided atmospheric lighting and Tom Morse has created a simple sound design.

Floyd Collins, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, and Violet were the sort of convention-shaking musicals one could find at Playwrights Horizons not so long ago. More recently, though, the company has given us The Spitfire Grill, My Life With Albertine, and now Wilder. The problem isn't that the later three are "dark" musicals, since Floyd Collins and Violet are as well; it's that the teams behind these lesser shows mistake a lack of joie de vivre as proof of serious intent. Wilder would be a better show if it were -- well, wilder.