A Catered Affair

There are any number of things that might be done to A Catered Affair to make it absolutely perfect, to transform it into the transcendental musical of my (or your) dreams. But I really loved it a lot, just the way it is.

And that is exactly what the show is about.

It is based on a 1956 film which was itself based on a Paddy Chayefsky TV drama, a gritty classic about working-class people. The central figures are Aggie and Tom Hurley, who live in an apartment in the Bronx with their daughter Janey and Aggie's brother, Winston. Tom is a cab driver. The Hurleys have recently lost their son Terence in the Korean War. As the story begins, Janey makes an announcement: she and her boyfriend Ralph have decided to get married—and they want to do it quick, without any kind of a fuss.

This bit of news—small and earth-moving at the same time—is all that's needed to fuel the remarkably touching events of A Catered Affair. All of the minor crises that something like a wedding can precipitate pop up. Janey's refusal to invite Uncle Winston to the City Hall ceremony (because if she invites him, she'll have to invite her other uncles and aunts and so on) leads to Winston sabotaging the big dinner with Ralph's family that the Hurleys throw that evening. Ralph's much wealthier parents' endless braying about the big weddings they gave their two daughters, coupled with Aggie's nagging guilt about how she always favored Terence over Janey, leads to Aggie's determination to put on the catered affair of the title...and that decision leads to a succession of small epiphanies that lead all five of the main characters—Aggie and Tom, Janey and Ralph, and Winston—to finally re-evaluate their priorities and figure out what's most important to them.

But it's never as pat or clearcut as that, nor ever so explosive; as in real life, almost all of the events and insights of A Catered Affair come gradually, and with an impact that builds and grows rather than overwhelms. The show boasts a beautifully constructed book by Harvey Fierstein, which melds seamlessly with John Bucchino's spare, rich score. This is a show where people generally talk until mere words can't convey what's inside them, and only then do they start to sing: the most effective songs come exactly at the places where characters burst beyond the walls they've built around themselves, as when Janey lets herself enjoy being fitted for "One White Dress," or when Aggie has a stunningly blissful daydream about the wedding she's planning ("Vision"), or when Tom lets decades of emotion out ("I Stayed").

Fierstein and Bucchino wisely keep their musical scaled small, with no extraneous characters (there's a chorus of three neighbor ladies who appear intermittently, mostly to provide helpful exposition) and not a single misspent scene or sequence.

Fierstein co-stars as Winston, providing a warm presence as Uncle Winston; but the show belongs indisputably to Faith Prince and Tom Wopat as Aggie and Tom, who are both not only better than I've ever seen them here but are almost certainly more affecting and compelling than any other performers on stage in a musical in town right now, period. Wopat's Tom is the shadowy presence that a hard-working Dad often is, until things start to boil over and he knows he has to assert himself or he'll fall apart; he rises to this climactic moment of the story and it's electrifying. Prince, on the other hand, shows us the layers of armor that Aggie has continually constructed around herself to get through an increasingly disappointing and difficult life—and then, in a few breathtaking places, she lets us see the big, aching, injured heart underneath. I will not soon forget the sheer simplicity and loveliness of her rendition of "Vision," imagining the perfect wedding that will somehow insulate her daughter from all hurts and troubles: heartbreakingly beautiful, this.

Rising star Leslie Kritzer is smart and understated as the generally pragmatic Janey; shoe does a gorgeous job on "One White Dress" and shares the show's one love song, "Don't Ever Stop Saying 'I Love You'" with Matt Cavenaugh, who is solidly likeable as Ralph. Kristine Zbornik, Lori Wilner, and the incandescent-as-always Heather MacRae play the chorus of neighbors and others; it's great to have such pros on hand even in these smaller roles. Philip Hoffman and Katie Klaus complete the small cast.

Direction is by John Doyle, and he's realized the tone and vision of his collaborators quite wonderfully. He and Fierstein and Bucchino and the ensemble tell this story of ordinary people doing ordinary things for ordinary reasons with subtlety and authenticity and love. It's a gift to be moved so thoroughly and genuinely by lives and emotions that feel real; no pyrotechnics, theatricks or dramatics required.

Yes, I can quibble about the occasional spatial disorientation I felt when Doyle positioned the actors just so on David Gallo's set, or about the occasional jolts of shtick and/or self-conscious activism that Fierstein has inserted into the play. But I am more than content to revel in Jonathan Tunick's glorious orchestration of Bucchino's deft, rich melodies and the pitch-perfect performances of Prince, Kritzer, and Wopat; and to know, as Aggie and Tom know and as Janey and Ralph will undoubtedly learn, that you can want what you love to be perfect...but would you love it as much if it were?