de'Adre Aziza, Michael Crane, and David Chandler
in Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine
(© Joan Marcus)
de'Adre Aziza, Michael Crane, and David Chandler
in Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine
(© Joan Marcus)
Just about any play that baldly announces what its about at the top of the show is going to run into trouble. Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine, Jordan Harrison's entertaining but uneven new work getting its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is no exception.

The opening lines of the script read: "This story is about where music comes from. This story is about how you put it on paper, and how you take it back off again. This story is about people with music in their heads, and the people who put it there." The words are spoken by a trio of characters whose tales are interwoven in this time-hopping piece: King Ludwig II (Laura Heisler), in the 1860s, who becomes composer Richard Wagner's (David Chandler) greatest fan and patron; Doris Unsworth (de'Adre Aziza), in the 1960s, who changes her name to Darlene when she becomes a pop star under the tutelage of record producer Vic Watts (Michael Crane); and a young man named Jacob (Tobias Segal), who obsesses over Darlene's music as well as his flamboyant music appreciation teacher, Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis).

The common melody that threads throughout the play is the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which Vic utilizes to craft Darlene's first top ten hit. Music weaves in and out of each of the stories, thanks to the excellent work from sound designer Darron L. West, as well as composer Kirsten Childs who worked with music arranger and producer Victor Zupanc to create Darlene's catchy pop tunes.

One of the high points in the production is a talk show sequence wherein the host (Chandler) attacks Vic for his inane lyrics. "You rhyme 'whoa' with 'whoa.' You need a rhyming dictionary for that?" he comments. Vic responds by getting the host to keep repeating the first line of the lyric, "Guess he likes the way I do my hair," while he and Darlene gradually add in rhythm and other sounds to demonstrate how his music is about mixing and layering.

All of the actors play multiple parts that cut across both gender and race. For instance, Nelis performs the role of Doris' African-American grandmother. He does not attempt a naturalistic interpretation, and yet there is still an integrity to the portrayal. Each actor also narrates segments of the play, in character. This is where Harrison runs into the most trouble. Too much of the time, he's telling us what the action is, overemphasizing his themes to make sure the audience gets it. When he actually shows us in more dialogue-driven scenes, it packs more of a punch. This is especially true of Jacob's conversations with Mr. Campani, which are suffused with frustrated desire and tender affection.

Among the actors, Nelis is the clear stand-out. He demonstrates subtle shades as Campani, and his final scene is a wonderful marriage of music, text, and emotion. As Doris/Darlene, Aziza occasionally gets to show off her own vocal prowess, although there are some frustrating moments in which you wish she'd be able to sing instead of narrate what her character is singing. Heisler succeeds in showing us Ludwig's youth and vulnerability, but not the madness that claims him in the end. Segal's Jacob is often moving, but it's a fairly one-note, angst-ridden characterization. Both Chandler and Crane do what they can with roles that feel underdeveloped.

Les Waters' production has a good sense of flow, partly thanks to scenic designer Takeshi Kata, whose turntable set allows for quick changes of scenery. But despite the playwright's constant reminders of what the show is about, the play itself doesn't dig deep enough into its protagonists' stories.