nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
April 30, 2005
In the beginning was the Note, and the Note was with God. Whosoever can reach for that note, reach high, and bring it back to us on earth, to our earthly ears—he is a composer, and to the extent of his reach, partakes of the divine.
So wrote composer, conductor, pianist, and 20th century legend Leonard Bernstein—rather elegantly, it must be said. The feisty, egomanical charmer would perhaps be all too pleased with this praise, if cigarettes hadn’t killed him in 1990. So it rests on the nimble actor Tom Nelis to bring the maestro to passionate life in the one-man chat, Score, at the New York Theatre Workshop, under the direction of another legend, Anne Bogart. Score does not have a plot, nor is it a biography, beyond a few anecdotes from his childhood and early career. Adaptor Jocelyn Clark has framed the work as a lecture, all words being drawn from Bernstein’s writings about art, music, death, childhood, the creative process, and smoking. Nelis plays him as one of those smokers who has the courtesy to ask if you mind, but interrupts the question with the flick of the lighter, and finishes it upon the exhale of the first drag.
We spend this night with Bernstein at the pinnacle of his career, a time in his life when he wears mantles like “living legend” and “genius” in reviews and profiles regularly. He is loving the attention, but Nelis brings out the wonderful gift of the gab he possessed, the accessible give-and-take Bernstein brought to everything—especially music. Watching Nelis bound through speeches, literally conducting himself with his own arms and body, we witness the rejuvenating power of merely talking about this stuff. It is, after all, about mysteries. Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Out of the mysteries come questions, and to stop asking them is to die early. Bernstein ruminates about the odds-defying fact he is even alive to lecture. He smokes, drinks, stays awake nights, and works like a man possessed. What is death, and why hasn’t it crushed Leonard Bernstein before this night?—one of many questions that we ourselves ask repeatedly for an hour-and-a-half, as he coughs from his lungs with no relief. “Life is juicy!” Nelis howls repeatedly, one of Bernstein’s better answers.
Fortunately, the rejuvenating effect of the material stops short of making us feel we’ve somehow been plopped back into 4th period Music Theory class. This is, after all, theatre, and Bogart has used a keen array of stimuli to negotiate the stagnancy pitfalls that have claimed many a one-man show. Naturally, classical music is heard throughout—perhaps Bernstein recordings, though the program doesn’t include credits about this. Bernstein uses the music to illustrate points, or reminisce about his own experiences. He becomes giddy describing the high he felt discovering the charm in Beethoven’s 9th, and reverent regarding the final page of Mahler’s 9th—“the closest we have ever come, in any work of art, to experiencing the very act of dying, of giving it all up.” Darron L. West’s sound design is beautifully woven in with Nelis’s voice. Never does one compete with the other. Instead, a gorgeous, precise balance between acting and design is achieved, to the point where we become unsure if Nelis is augmenting the music, or the reverse. Underscoring is attempted rarely in straight drama these days, but a show about Bernstein getting worked up in a music talk practically demands it. These professionals pull it off with flair.
Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is also an appreciable element of spectacle, and eases the tonal shifts between the various elements of Bernstein’s writing. Perhaps the most abstract path Nelis takes us down is one Bernstein calls “the central line,” the travel of a musical work from the trance-like unconscious of the composer, to the written page, to the conductor’s podium, to the listener’s ear. It is the trance that Bernstein is awed by, and Akerlind establishes an eerie atmosphere of shadow and murk around Nelis. Upstage of Nelis is a tangled thicket of music stands twisted every which way, and the clip lights atop each stand flash in a random frenzy during this section. It is perfectly disorienting and spooky.
The final bit of razzle-dazzle needing mention is Nelis’s movement throughout the piece. He is a teacher of physically-rooted acting techniques such as Suzuki and Bogart’s own Viewpoints, and the dance-like kinetics of his performance flow effortlessly. It matches Bernstein’s own energy, but also takes on an ethereal representation of something larger than the man himself—his spirit. I doubt that Bernstein had quite the agility of Tom Nelis, but by capturing Bernstein’s soul and using it to power his physicality, Nelis becomes a captivating spectacle in and of himself, and makes the marriage of Bernstein and theatre a happy one.
Score inspires brain and heart, belief and passion. It manages to make us pensively consider what in our fundamental humanity puts us in a theatre, concert hall, or museum to witness art. Is it innate? If so, are we evolving away from it, and should that worry us? Are we so focused on bare existence that we are forgetting what it is to be alive? We hear Bernstein tell us “A work of art does not answer questions: it provokes them… for each question, there are two answers, roughly corresponding to Yes and No, and attended by innumerable variations.”
Score is such a work, and the question of recommendation earns a resounding “Yes” in my book. This is rare, meaty theatre, too precious to miss.