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Kelli O’Hara and Chad Kimball in My Life With Albertine
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
My Life with Albertine, the inaugural production of the new Playwrights Horizons space, begins at the end of the story it tells. A makeshift proscenium arch is at center stage in the middle of an ornate drawing room; actors sit at the sides, apparently waiting for their cues. The curtain parts and an older man ushers Albertine through it, stepping aside and urging her to sing for the audience. Sing she does, a letter of apology and a wish for reconciliation with her lover. Then the older man, after explaining that he has just showed us the ending of his tale, starts at the beginning, when a much younger version of himself first met Albertine.

Based on sections of Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust's semi-autobiographical, multi-volume tome, My Life with Albertine traces a tumultuous relationship that lasted less than two years but stayed with Marcel for his whole life. Albertine bookwriter Richard Nelson, who was quoted in a recent New York Times article as saying that about 80% of the musical's dialogue is pure Proust, has done an estimable of job adapting the story to stage. Nelson succeeds in making a not very active story quite engaging, capturing the humor of Marcel and Albertine's first series of encounters as they flirt with but don't quite fall in love and then using Marcel's intense jealousy -- fired by his conviction that Albertine is involved in lesbian love affairs -- to drive the second act.

Except for a couple of highly repetitive, vaudeville-style numbers performed early in the show, most of composer/lyricist Ricky Ian Gordon's songs are not especially memorable. Yet the music, strikingly beautiful and lushly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, serves the show well. Gordon and Nelson have fashioned a theatrical landscape for Proust's prose in which music feels utterly natural. It comes from all directions: from the show's orchestra, led by Charles Prince, playing above the stage; from actor Paul Anthony McGrane, playing (or miming the playing of) piano and accordion onstage; and from characters singing and dancing as they enjoy the Parisian nightlife. All of these elements help to make the story sing. (Less successful is a vague and underdeveloped attempt to portray Marcel as a composer, as well as a writer.)

Brent Carver, Kelli O’Hara, Laura Woyasz,
and Emily Skinner in My Life With Albertine
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
The show's cast of 10 includes such Broadway vets as Emily Skinner, Donna Lynne Champlin, Brooke Sunny Moriber, and Jim Poulos, so it's surprising to discover that these significant talents are largely squandered. Skinner gets to open the second act by belting the song "I Want You" and Champlin provides comic relief in her two roles; but, for the most part, the musical zeroes in on Albertine and the two Marcels. It's hard to watch such an excellent cast sit on the sidelines, but they do so in service of Gordon's music, which demands intricate work from the chorus (most notably in the hair-raising "The Street" sequence). Louging at the periphery of the stage in attractive period costumes by Susan Hilferty, these stellar performers contribute to the handsome look of the production with its sets designed by Thomas Lynch.

Brent Carver, always a good if not great singer, gives a memorable performance as the elder Marcel. With sad eyes and a weathered face lit by the glow of the limelight, Carver simmers with the gravity, good humor, and wisdom that bittersweet experience has brought his character, and he occasionally startles us with a particularly rueful observation. "Life is cruel; so are we," he says in relating how he grew bored with Albertine after their initial affair.

While the older and wiser Marcel can scarcely keep from expressing his love for Albertine, the younger man is reticent. (Gordon conveys his and Albertine's inability to communicate their feelings in one of the show's most effective songs, "But What I Say": "But what I say is, 'Kiss me, hold me,' but what you think is 'Want me.' But what I say is 'Touch me,' but what you think is 'Like me, love me.'") Chad Kimball, entirely credible as a younger version of Carver, is very good as the petulant youth Marcel.

But Kelli O'Hara is the true marvel of the evening. O'Hara was fine in Sweet Smell of Success, but that show's jazzy score barely hinted at her abilities; she's a natural for Gordon's complex and often operatic music, captivating in the show's dirge-like opening and impressive in the comic "I Need Me a Girl." But it's not just her voice that's astonishing; as an actress, O'Hara radiates light, warmth, and a bit of mystery. It's not difficult to see why young Marcel is drawn to her or why the older Marcel continues to think about her so many years later.

And what of those dueling Prousts? During the first act, Carver is mostly a presenter and a commentator; but as that theatrical conceit falls away in the second act, so does the differentiation between the young and old Marcel. Soon, Carver is in on the action -- buzzing around the two lovers, interacting with his youthful self and with Albertine. This dynamic creates some of the show's liveliest exchanges and prompts a beautiful duet between the two men, "Sometimes."

Chad Kimball and Brent Carver
in My Life With Albertine
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
There is no question that the production, which is also directed by Nelson, is a little slow-moving. But the cumulative effect of Gordon's music and Proust's melancholy meditations on love makes the time spent -- a full two-and-a-half hours -- worthwhile. The payoffs are significant, both in story and score, and the show's theme most poignantly expressed in Nelson and Gordon's skillful development of "Song of Solitude," a first-act solo for Carver in which he posits that, "On any given day, half the human race is in tears."
Albertine tells the oldest story in the book -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl -- but with the added weight of a man looking back on his life and discovering that the affair in question was the beginning of his search to connect with other people. It's that same search which keeps audiences going back to the theater again and again. Playwrights Horizons has given us some of the contemporary theater's most challenging, beautiful, and -- yes -- flawed works. My Life With Albertine continues that tradition and is, therefore, an apt new beginning for this venerable organization.

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