Julie Craig, Austin Pendleton, and
Elon Rutberg in The Black Monk
(© Carol Rosegg)
Julie Craig, Austin Pendleton, and
Elon Rutberg in The Black Monk
(© Carol Rosegg)
Picture a musical about a man so obsessed with an artistic need to express himself on canvases that he has little time for the people in his life -- in particular the woman with whom he is supposedly in love. You've focused on Sunday in the Park With George, haven't you? Well, so has playwright Wendy Kesselman, perhaps without realizing it, in her extremely disappointing chamber musical The Black Monk, at Theatre Row's Samuel Beckett Theatre.

Indeed, this work, loosely adapted from Anton Chekhov's 1894 short story, would have been best left in her own chamber. Very little about the show, including the direction of Kevin Newbury or the performances of a cast led by Austin Pendleton, is particularly effective, although Charlie Corcoran's set is nicely conceived; the stage floor curves up several feet at the back to support a walkway on which hints of a wheat field are sometimes displayed.

The musical involves Andrei (Elon Rutberg) who returns from Moscow to take up residence with onetime gardener neighbor Igor (Scott Robertson) and his daughter Tanya (Julie Craig). Unable to get a legend about a monk out of his head, Andrei -- who is not an artist in the Chekhov original -- begins hallucinating about the hooded stranger (Pendleton). His preoccupying thoughts swirl around the monk's goading him to paint, paint, paint (and often in the dead of the night). Although he marries Tanya, their joy is fleeting as he continually disturbs her wee-hours slumber, and his gathering madness predictably leads to no good end.

For her 90-minute, intermissionless piece, Kesselman has created 17 songs and reprises several of them. They have the sweetness of morning dew but like dew vanish quickly when exposed to the light of day. The melodies are undistinguished, and Wesselman's lyrics too often run to rhymed couplets like "Right from the start/He breaks every heart" and constructions like "Give yourself to art/Give yourself to me/Set yourself apart/That's where you must be."

The score is efficiently played by musical director and arranger Christopher Berg and cellist Arthur Cook, who are seated at stage left, and is sung well enough by Rutberg, Robertson, and Craig. But the word "sung" is outrageously inappropriate for Pendleton. For decades, he has been a superb character actor as well as accomplished director and dramatist; but he sadly cannot sing, and should not be doing so in this travesty.