You never forget where you were when you first heard the album that changed your life. Maybe you were in the car with your family, maybe you were getting baked with your friends in your room. But what was going on with the players as they laid down the tracks that introduced you to the possibilities of music? Were they having the same transcendent experience as you? Or were they in the long, drawn-out process of ending their relationships while simultaneously rocking your world?
Those are some of the questions that David Adjmi poses in his tempestuous new play Stereophonic, now receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. The band in question is fictional, but it bears a striking resemblance to Fleetwood Mac, who are this close to becoming famous, and feeling the pressure of putting together the record that would go on to become a seminal masterpiece (in this case, Rumours). A fly-on-the-wall examination of this group’s hot-and-heavy studio sessions, Stereophonic is sort of the theatrical equivalent of Peter Jackson’s three-part Beatles documentary Get Back. Beautiful and unwieldy, mesmerizing and frustrating, it’s way too long for its own good, but I savored every moment.
Adjmi’s five-member band is made up of two couples, who are loose stand-ins for John and Christine McVie, and Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham, as well as a Mick Fleetwood-esque drummer (Chris Stack). Vocalist and pianist Holly (Juliana Canfield) and bassist Reg (Will Brill) have fallen out of love, owing mostly to his various addictions (a sight gag involving a baggie filled with an enormous amount of cocaine gets a hearty laugh every time it appears). Meanwhile, singer Diana (Sarah Pidgeon) and guitarist and producer Peter (Tom Pecinka) have been married for nine years and are slowly becoming aware that their marriage is eroding before their very eyes as the months wear on. Out front, engineers Grover (Eli Gelb) and Charlie (Andrew R. Butler) observe the squabbles going on around them while facing their own pressures to get things done perfectly.
Set in the control room and sound booth of a divey beige recording studio circa 1976-77 (David Zinn’s ornately detailed set, Enver Chakartash’s period costumes, Jiyoun Chang’s subtle lighting, and Ryan Rumery’s multidirectional sound are triumphs), Stereophonic follows a year’s worth of interpersonal struggles as the members of this unnamed group bicker, snort coke, end their romances, and ultimately create a work of art for the ages. The actors perform take after take live, developing riffs and licks from thin air as if by magic. Their ethereal songs are penned in real life by Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, who ingeniously provides Fleetwood Mac sound-alike tunes that have a distinct style and groove of their very own. I would happily listen to this album if they were to actually record one.
Director Daniel Aukin elicits exceptional performances from each actor, while still guiding them to coalesce as a tight ensemble. As beleaguered technicians awaiting their own big breaks, Gelb’s quiet intimidation by the sight of the band transforms into a slow-burning frustration, and Butler makes for his delightful foil, quirkily trying to diffuse the tension. On the other side of the glass partition, Stack is a blusterer with a soul as Mick Fleetwood proxy Simon, Brill is eminently believable as a low-key British rockstar who’s let the excesses of fame overtake him, and you can palpably sense from Canfield how over it she is.
However, the journey of the play belongs to Pidgeon and Pecinka, whose characters slowly succumb to the pressures of stardom, the fame machine wreaking havoc on their relationship to the point of no return. Pidgeon is particularly remarkable as Diana, the look of hurt and confusion present in every glance as Pecinka’s Peter slings a barb in her direction. To outsiders, the concept of cutting a long song down by a few minutes doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, but Pidgeon infuses the concept with such palpable heartbreak that you can’t help but feel for her.
I wish Adjmi had had the same conversation with himself over the course of previews. Giving each character multiple moments of significance is admirable, but in so doing he, too, has gotten wrapped up in excess. At more than three hours (the first act alone is 100 minutes), he has created too many repetitive emotional beats and scenes that go on longer than they need to. A tighter, more focused version of the script, one where Adjmi kills some of his darlings, would only strengthen what’s there, the same way that it would give more weight to the message of Diana’s song. Still, Stereophonic is a unique and singular exploration of the passion and torment that comes with making art that passes the test of time, and I have little doubt that this play will, too.