Arlington


by Ron Cohen · March 2, 2014


Indie Artists on New Plays #56 Ron Cohen looks at Arlington at the Vineyard Theatre

Sara Jane, a woman whose husband is away at war in the Middle East -- presumably in Afghanistan -- goes through some 24 hours of deep and rambling introspection in Arlington, the ambitious but intimate new musical theatre piece being presented by the Vineyard Theatre. Book and lyrics are by playwright-novelist Victor Lodato and music is by Polly Pen. The Vineyard has a proclivity for such offbeat musicals. In addition to past work by Pen, it has mounted productions of shows ranging from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s very serious The Scottsboro Boys (to my way of thinking, a classic) to the blithely happy [title of show].  

While Arlington may not match the irresistible appeal of those efforts, it’s an admirable work.  Ensconced in her neat living room awash in neutral colors, Sara Jane talks -- or rather sings --  to the audience directly, telling us about her husband Jerry, her fears for his safety, her own growing concerns about the war generally: the children who are its victims, the changes it may make in her husband’s personality.  The back wall of her living room is a scrim, through which we see the pianist accompanying her contemplations. He sometimes takes on the personas of the men in her life, most particularly, her husband.

After a fierce thunderstorm which begins the show, the mood goes from sunny and a bit comical to an enveloping darkness. By the final fade, Sara Jane is virtually traumatized by her thoughts about war. Along the way, Sara Jane has also told us about her mother’s proclivity for face lifts and red wine (Sara Jane herself get a little tipsy at one point), the military tradition of her family (her father was a colonel and her brother died in an earlier war), and a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, VA, from which the show derives it title. Most crucially, Sara Jane reveals she is pregnant and the baby is a boy, heightening her anxiety over a world that seems constantly at war.

Effectively portraying Sara Jane‘s emotional fluidity,  Alexandra Silber gives an extraordinary performance in what is basically an hour-long operatic monologue. She negotiates Pen’s more difficult musical passages with ease, filling the theater with a shimmering soprano. At the piano, Ben Moss is equally adept musically, while bringing convincing depth of character to his occasional lines of dialogue. Carolyn Cantor’s deft direction helps to keep the shifts in mood and context in focus.

As for the script, Lodato’s text creates a poetic exploration of a woman caught in a crisis of thought, and Pen’s music often amplifies his narrative strongly. Much of the music is sprechstimme, though, and when it does move into full-blown melody it doesn’t quite grab the heart. In fact, I sometimes found the music distanced me from the proceedings, as I struggled to understand all of Lodato’s words.

In fact, the most arresting moment in the show was when the singing stopped, Silber went to a second piano on stage and engaged in an  almost overpowering, emotion-wracked keyboard duet with Moss.

On balance, though, Arlington provides a worthwhile  example of how seriously thoughtful and adventurous dramatic writing can be incorporated into the realm of musical theatre.

 

 

 

 

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