On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
December 14, 2011
There is an up-and-coming 1940s big band vocalist reincarnated into an almost-30 gay flower shop worker in the '70s. Or, possibly, the past life is merely a fantasy created by Dr. Mark Bruckner, using hypnosis on his patient and falling in love with the figment singer, as a way of getting over the death of his wife. Either way, the convoluted premise builds some interesting tension, and evokes a little bit of mystery, in the generally light-hearted musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
Harry Connick, Jr., with a jazzy baritone reminiscent of Sinatra, is at the center of the plot as Dr. Bruckner. His affair with Melinda Wells, sung like a dream by Jessie Mueller, is played out as though in her era, while in reality occurring in Bruckner’s office with his entranced patient, David Gamble, played by David Turner. There are moments where the worlds overlap, such as an amusing trio song and dance to “Melinda,” and there is a reference to the Kinsey scale of sexuality tossed in, but generally the characters are safely divided.
Bruckner sets out to prove Melinda truly existed and finds her old accompanist, only to discover she died on David’s birthday (to him verifying the reincarnation, assuming it is like Theravada Buddhism and other traditions, not the 49 day interim claimed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), and that many details of her life stated through David were true. The psychologist and psychology professor goes on to begin teaching his students "alternative psychology."
Before the play begins, the stage is closed off by a magic-eye-like black and white checkered wall, indented with the shape of a large key hole. Then, the set by Christine Jones opens to a world of psychedelic color, light, and dimension. A large Rorschach ink blot hangs on the outside of Bruckner’s office, but is filled in with vibrant color once Bruckner begins his affair. Large jagged pieces move across each other on the back wall dynamically in transitions.
David is hesitant about moving forward with his relationship with Warren Smith, played by Drew Gehling. Also, his shop’s owner takes all credit for his flower arrangements. He is unaware of exactly what goes on while he is hypnotized, but has a sense that something romantic is brewing. In an almost Faustian way, Bruckner is taking advantage of the oblivious young David for his own development.
In Mark and Melinda’s final interaction, he asks her not to leave on a plane that will bring her to her death, immediately reminding us of his struggle to get past the loss of his wife. We have seen short snippets of prior dates Mark has been on, where he dismisses the women for small humorous reasons. With resistance, he lets her go. Then, he is able to sing “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
What I like about the re-conception and direction by Michael Mayer, and new book by Peter Parnell, is that it doesn’t matter that the reincarnation tale isn’t fully comprehensible, because exactly what it’s indicating is that embracing life’s mystery leads to a fuller life. The song “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows” emphasizes this point. Freud is referenced among the play’s psychologists like a final prophet. The dominance of psychology, as "beyond all world views," claiming an ultimate true understanding of the world, is thoroughly questioned by this play.
If you like classic musicals, the catchy music by Burton Lane may draw you to On a Clear Day, and there are some fun bits of choreography by Joann M. Hunter. Like its character David, behind the play’s surface hokey-ness and silliness, there is revealed a significant core. I find it quite relevant as an interrogation of our modern culture’s sense of superiority in our outlook. For me it was just another healthy reminder, that anytime I think I “know,” I’m fooling myself more than when I’m dreaming.