by Everett Goldner · May 19, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #95: Everett Goldner comments on Pieces at Planet Connections Festivity Pieces: the Musical is the story of Tabby, a woman who has for most of her life been inhabited by five alternate personalities. These “alters” serve functions that multiple personalities have always been popularly supposed to do, acting as wardens of Tabby’s psyche; smiling, sharp-suited Dimitri is appointed to rescue her from depression, Princess Chloe seeks love, angry Wolf shows us Tabby’s rage, five-year old Molly her hidden innocence, and dark Jade, dressed as a widow in mourning, is a manifestation of Tabby’s suicidal ideations. The alters are all aware of each other and interact like a sort of funhouse Swiss Family Robinson.
It’s all quite neat, both visually and expositionally, and therein lies the problem; you know what to expect from every character before a word is spoken or sung. They give you what you expect, and nothing more. A so tidily prepackaged musical about mental illness is badly in need of a human element not predicated on common, sixty-year old notions about mental illness that can be instantly recognized, slotted and forgotten. The stage work of the ensemble is strong enough that, for the most part, I didn’t mind watching Tabby’s story play out toward a conventionally happy ending that I never for a moment felt was in doubt, but I was well-aware that these characters would not linger in my mind after curtain call; I would not be wondering what Dimitri and Wolf really think of each other, because their connection runs no deeper than what we see at first glance: Dimitri smiles, Wolf rages. When Tabby’s therapist speaks of Dimitri: “so poised and calm, yet so worried and protective…” it’s a patently hollow sentiment. Dimitri embodies the former two qualities, while the latter two are notably absent. This shallowness is part and parcel of the story, in which we learn that Tabby’s parents (heard only in recorded voice-over, so there’s no need to care about them) were, respectively: father an all-purpose sociopath who beat, molested AND raped her continually throughout childhood, and mother a manipulative harpy who stood by the rapist.
In short: the pieces of real psychological connection that can play on the stage of memory don’t yet fit together here. Into the Woods this is not.
Although too broad and lacking depth, the actors have certainly invested something in these “pieces” that goes a long way towards allowing them to come to life beyond the confines of the book, and they are aided in this by the often sharp score, which at once gives us a different theme to recognize each alter by: old-time Broadway jazz for Dimitri, rock opera for Jade, and so on. Sonia Hebe Acosta is a true standout as Jade, infusing the alter’s grief with an unquestionable passion and bravery that is quite beautiful to witness, while Melissa D’Anna nearly runs away with the show when Molly comes out to play; the show writers’ delight in their work is never as evident as in the creation of Molly, who wants only to color outside the lines. And cliché though it may be, when Tabby’s father smacks her around and Sarah Ann Vail as Wolf stands up (and falls down) to take the blows, Vail absolutely makes you feel the confused, naked frustration that could lead a girl to deny the whole thing and retreat behind her imaginary friends forever afterwards.
There are some significant technical problems: the five-piece onstage orchestra sometimes drowns out the singers’ voices, especially in the first half of the show, and the alters as a group are far too often inert; when not “active” in Tabby’s body or providing backup vocals, they mostly just stand upstage of the active characters throughout the entire show. We can only watch Dimitri genuflect, Chloe twirl her hair and Wolf seethe in place for a few minutes before they feel irrelevant, like physical “type” options you might choose to play in Sim City. They need actions to perform, or they need to depart the stage until called upon.
The show hits its stride in Act Two, with the group number “Who Has the Key?” (perhaps the strongest anthem of the show, but too short), and the show passes the primary test of a musical; whether you find yourself humming its tunes afterwards. On the subway back, my companion for the night and I both had the act one finale, “Thinking of You” stuck in our heads. Pieces is a show that currently stands on the strength of its performances and the skeleton of its score; if its narrative skill ever rises to meet these elements in future productions, it could become a piece to remember for a long time.