It’s time to call a moratorium on the “teenage angst” musical. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the Young Adult medium. After all, novels targeted to troubled teens sell millions of copies a year. Yet after a string of musicals that are mediocre at best, the genre on stage has palled, with characters that have blended into one indistinguishable, self-reverential herd facing all-too similar situations. One can trace the current rise of the form from the morally squishy “Dear Evan Hansen” to the inane “Be More Chill,” the turgid “Jagged Little Pill,” and now “Sing Street” at New York Theatre Workshop.
“Sing Street” is based on a 2016 movie by John Carney and has been developed for the stage with a book by Enda Walsh and a score by Carney and Gary Clark. The team comes with an impressive pedigree. Walsh and Carney had previously adapted another Carney film, “Once,” for the stage with great success. “Once,” however, had a more sophisticated plot, individual characters, and a much more coherent structure… and it was about grown-ups.
“Sing Street,” by comparison, is a sloppy, generic, coming of age story, that pits rebellious youth in a Dublin school led by the dyspeptic Conor, who want to create a band to escape their dead-end world — an endeavor that puts them directly in conflict with a mean priest, insensitive parents, Conor’s agoraphobic brother Brendan, who wallows in self-pity, and his sister who chafes at being the hope of the family. It’s all about as hackneyed and formulaic as it gets in terms of plot and characters, undermining any authentic emotional connection with the story.
The saving grace of the piece is the score. Its pop-rock, ‘80s feel is alternately bright and melancholy as the scenes require. The music the boys create is heavily influenced by such bands as Duran Duran, but the pastiche is witty and inspired. It’s performed with amazing talent, notably by Brenock O’Connor as Conor. O’Connor and the rest of the young musicians sing their hearts out with unmistakable passion, even as the story’s triteness sparks eye rolls. Understanding the lyrics, unfortunately, is tough at times, whether due to poor sound design or diction.
Rebecca Taichman’s direction is serviceable as is Sonya Tayeh’s choreography, but neither offers anything surprising nor elevates the piece beyond a generic tale of disaffected kids. The final anthem, “Go Now,” ostensibly inspiring and sung wonderfully by Gus Halper as Brendan, posits that Conor should take a risk since he has nothing to lose. Sadly, in this retelling of an overworked story, there’s not much to gain, either.
Anyone who has dealt with an aging parent and their care and safety — or appreciates the craft of playwriting — can’t help but be appalled by “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” a new play by George Eastman. The play is a ham-fisted, superficial enterprise that pits a selfish, egotistical son against an equally repellant father. It’s all supposed to be oh-so-funny as Harry, a crusty 84-year-old who is obsessed with sex, spars with his son Alan, a would-be controlling but previously absent presence in Harry’s life, about Harry going into assisted living. Instead, it’s just sad.
To begin with, these two-dimensional characters don’t even speak like believable people, and the labored, obvious, 50 minutes of blathering before we get to the real issue is tedious and decidedly unfunny. The labored exposition does nothing to win us over to either character. Harry likes his life in his home and doesn’t want to leave it because it would be an admission he’s entering the final stage of life. Alan, blind to anything other than what he wants, railroads his father into the decision. There could have been a play in here dealing honestly with the dark realization that life is finite or the challenges of the child becoming the parent. Instead, Eastman’s play is a weak sitcom that demeans what’s at stake for real live people.
No lesser actors than Len Cariou and Craig Bierko take on the roles of Harry and Alan, respectively. While it’s always a pleasure to see these two, their talents are wasted. Cariou manages to sparkle playfully at times and even has a few serious moments that could be compelling. Bierko is reduced to largely mugging his way through his part. It’s not the fault of these excellent actors; they simply have nothing to work with.
As Harry is about to leave his cottage at the end, he takes a last look around. Since we’ve never gotten any idea of what his home and leaving it means to him, it’s an empty moment. Madame Ranevskaya saying goodbye to her home at the end of the “Cherry Orchard” it isn’t. Chekhov captures a world on the brink of change and a life lost all in the sadness of one old woman. Eastman gives us virtually nothing approaching that. And that’s too bad. With the clock ticking, an honest exploration of aging’s many challenging could be timely, engaging, cathartic, and legitimately theatrical.
SING STREET | New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St., btwn. Second & Third Aves. | Through Jan. 26: Tue.-Thu., Sun. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $129 at nytw.org or 212-460-5475 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission
HARRY TOWNSEND’S LAST STAND | New York City Center, Stage II | 131 W. 55th St. | Through Mar. 15: Mon.-Tue., Thu.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Thu., Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$89 at nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212 | Two hrs., with intermission