You can pick up a bit of factual background as the plot progresses (between the narration and an overlay of slides and archival film clips, you'd be hard pressed not to), but you can also just relax and luxuriate in the rich soundscape provided by composer Jim Bauer, who labels his style "Sturm 'n Twang -- Kurt Weill going tete-a-tete with Hank Williams." The music is lush and transporting, thanks to a skilled onstage octet (perched high in Beowulf Boritt's jumble of slapdash catwalks) and above all, an ensemble of superb singer-actors set aswirl by director Will Pomerantz.
For this fourth incarnation (following a 2004 presentation by the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a Prospect Theater Company production in 2008, and Cambridge's American Repertory Theater's well-received production last year), Broadway veteran Marc Kudisch takes on the pivotal role of Max, loosely modeled on the figurative painter Max Beckmann. The twilight of his life, in the 1950s, finds him sitting in an Upper West Side park, putting what will turn out to be the final touches on a scrapbook of collages. Later, in the course of free-wheeling flashbacks, he feverishly sketches the historical context in his own impassioned -- if occasionally exasperating -- vernacular, "Maxperanto."
As Max reminisces -- helped along by a narrator figure intelligently embodied by Graham Rowat -- the figures in the photo-book come to life. Sebastian Arcelus plays Max's art-school bosom buddy Franz (based on expressionist Franz Marc). Teal Wicks is Marie, the hard-working, hard-partying scientist whom both men both loved -- Max platonically, but not for lack of yearning. Reprising her role from the previous two productions, Meghan McGeary brings increasing nuance to the role of performance artiste/provocateuse Hannah, in real life Hannah Höch, herself a noted collagist.
Kudisch, with his leading-man panache, makes for a less pathetic third wheel, so he's not as touching as he might be, trailing after his two besotted best friends -- "always a ghost / drifting paces behind." The pair's erotic bond, though, appears -- if possible -- more electric than ever. Hannah tries to fill the void in Max's heart, but with limited success, and she will suffer for the lack of love -- hideously, scarily, in a nightmarish sequence titled "Dark Party."
Still, it's Marie's loss of Franz that occupies the emotional core of the story. Wicks, though herself young and fresh, manages to plumb several lifetimes' worth of sorrow in her two laments, "Eiffel Tower" (about the Parisian idyll that Marie and Franz will never get to enjoy) and "(Let It) Slide through Your Hands," a moving ballad that touches on the acceptance that death ineluctably forces upon us. As she sings, you may have the sensation, for one profound moment suspended in time, that all around you, other onlookers are steeped in their own memories of loved ones forever lost.