nytheatre.com review by David Hilder
February 21, 2010
Romance Romance, a pair of one-act musicals, is a nice choice for an off-off-Broadway company. It's a tuneful evening with a small cast, offering terrific opportunities for singing actors to strut their stuff. The two acts are entirely distinct: The first, based on Arthur Schnitzler's short story "The Little Comedy," is set in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna; the second, "Summer Share" (adapted from Jules Renard's 1898 play Le Pain de Menage), is set on contemporary Long Island. The former is a frothy, witty confection about a pair of sly deceivers who complement and deserve each other, while the latter touches on a present-day pair of opposite-sex best friends who have managed to stay platonic, burying a lot of desire and frustration. The tone varies greatly, and Act One succeeds more than Act Two, but the evening as a whole is a solid construction, and worth examination. The Active Theater Company's production of Romance Romance is a mixed bag, with each act featuring one stronger performance and one that's less satisfying.
In "The Little Comedy," Alfred (Nick Dalton) is a man of means and Josefine (Abby Mueller) is a highly successful courtesan; these are people of style and money, unaccustomed to suffering anything worse than a hangnail. But Alfred and Josefine, who do not know each other, do suffer from a similar sense of boredom with their lives, and so they set out one evening in the clothing of the lower classes to mix and mingle. When they encounter each other, they're sure they've found exactly what they've been looking for, and so a romance based entirely on lies begins, as Alfred affects to be a poet, and Josefine, a shopgirl in a millinery. Lyricist/librettist Barry Harman and composer Keith Herrmann's writing is really strong in this act; there's wit and a great score on display. Dancers David Strobbe and Alison Solomon do fine work on the small stage in this act's transitions, but the bulk of the work is left to Dalton and Mueller. Dalton is smug and supercilious, seeming at every moment to be so completely self-involved that it's hard to believe he feels the romantic yearning at the core of the work. But Mueller is absolutely terrific. Possessed of a great voice and superb timing, her Josefine is both refined and giddy, and her work is impressive at every turn.
"Summer Share" finds Monica (Stephanie Youell Binetti) and Sam (Nathaniel Shaw) confronting a long-simmering mutual attraction while weekending in the country with their respective spouses, played by Dalton and Mueller. Late at night, fueled by booze, their other halves asleep, Monica and Sam begin to play a dangerous game of "what if?" that has sharp and unanticipated consequences. It's a shame that the book for this act is so much weaker than its counterpart in Act One; Binetti and Shaw end up having to say things that ordinarily would be simply understood, and neither can entirely overcome the handicap. But the score is, again, impressive, and they sing very nicely. In this act it's the male half of the leading duo who registers the more interesting work. Binetti looks great, but never seems at ease in her skin, and her singing is overly pop-inflected in what are fairly traditional musical theatre songs. Shaw, however, brings struggling good guy Sam to effective life; if his approach is muted, it still has appeal. Mueller and Dalton, in the smaller roles of their spouses, also turn in solid work, particularly Mueller.
The physical production features a simple but entirely winning set design by Craig M. Napoliello and very nice costumes by Laura Catignani. Paul Black's lighting feels more hampered by the constraints of budget. As for the director/choreographer, Marc Robin has made several choices that differ from the original production, notably alternating the leading actors in the two acts rather than having the same leading pair (Alison Fraser and Scott Bakula on Broadway, for those who are curious about such things). While this approach offers more opportunity for actors, it dilutes the accrued interest we have in the leads from Act One—and since Act Two focuses on a pair of friends contemplating adultery with each other, a tough sell, it would be nice to go into the act with more of an investment in those performers. Additionally, one wonders why the actors in the first act are using upper class British accents (apparently the maid speaks with an Austrian accent). Robin's staging is strong, though, particularly in "The Little Comedy," and for the most part he mines what's enjoyable about Romance Romance.