BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
It is no accident or mere caprice that prompted Michael Mayer to place his engaging new revival and revision of “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” in 1974. One year earlier, the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, causing a storm of controversy that would last until its permanent removal in 1986.
Mayer and new book writer Peter Parnell have made the central character not Daisy Gamble, but rather David Gamble, a young gay man who under hypnosis by psychiatrist Mark Bruckner reveals a past life as jazz singer Melinda Wells, with whom Bruckner falls in love. Significantly, David visits Dr. Bruckner not to cure his homosexuality but to find a way to stop smoking. In the course of the sessions, Bruckner crosses the line by getting personally involved with his patient, but since this is a musical comedy, the outcome is ultimately rosy and all is forgiven.
In fact, Bruckner suffers no professional consequence; the story is presented in hindsight as the psychiatrist presents David’s case (he is termed “patient D”) to a gathering of colleagues.
“Clear Day” has always been a show with a challenged book and a lovely score, and in revising the book, Parnell has solved some problems at the expense of being heavy on exposition in the first act. However, that pays off in the second act, which is touching and affecting as both David and Dr. Bruckner find the healing they need.
And then, of course, there’s that score. It’s certainly dated by today’s standards, but it’s melodic and charming, and — with new orchestrations by Doug Besterman and outstanding musical direction by Lawrence Yurman — wonderful to hear, especially the new setting of “She Wasn’t You.” Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics remain inventively rich and comic. One favorite is when David sings to a pot of buttercups, “Come give at least a/ Preview of Easter.” Silly, yes, but it’s also irresistibly charming.
And charm is what makes this production work. Harry Connick, Jr. as Dr. Bruckner is, of course, a wonderful singer, but he also inhabits the character, finding the darkness and conflict that make him sympathetic. Jessie Mueller as Melinda is stunning, with a voice of great versatility and substance. David Turner is simply splendid as David, a slight man with a huge and nuanced voice and the acting chops to make the character’s progression compelling. One of the principal pleasures of this production is the absolutely flawless technique the three leads bring to their singing.
In supporting roles, Sarah Stiles and Drew Gehling are great as David’s best friend and long-suffering boyfriend, respectively, and the small but busy ensemble is consistently outstanding.
Catherine Zuber’s clothing perfectly captures 1974 in some of its more extreme expressions, which may be shocking or humiliating to today’s eyes, depending on your age. Christine Jones’ set capitalizes on the op-art movement of the time and is both minimal and effective.
While this is clearly not a new musical, Mayer has approached it with the boldness and daring that characterized both his “American Idiot” and “Spring Awakening.” It’s a tribute to his vision that the show holds up in an engaging, touching, and heartfelt way.
ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER
St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th St.
Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.
While the parallels certainly aren’t exact, the current mortgage crisis — driven perhaps as much by individual wishful thinking and speculation as by predatory bank practices — lends timeliness to Chekhov’s classic play “The Cherry Orchard.”
Madame Ranevskaya cannot pay the mortgage and is going to lose her beloved family home and its famous cherry orchard. Her inability to accept this fact and her refusal to consider offers that would save her property, even though it would be transformed, provide the central tension of the play.
Chekhov had larger themes at work as well. Cherry orchards take years to bear fruit, and cherries, like olives, are among the oldest cultivated crops in history, so the orchard is a symbol of an ancien régime being shaken to its roots by modernity, particularly the socio-economic upheaval that upended Russia and most of Europe at the dawn of the 20th century. It is a play of scope and subtlety, constantly blurring the line between farce and tragedy, which was a critical element of Chekhov’s worldview.
The new production of “The Cherry Orchard” at the Classic Stage Company uses a radically shortened new translation by John Christopher Jones, which collapses the play’s original four acts into two and clips an hour or more from the running time of other productions I’ve seen. It also changes the play in material ways — not always for the better.
Jones undermines its social and historical context, virtually eliminating many of the lesser characters who represent the inevitably advancing world. Though the focus shifts decisively to Ranevskaya, the force of her folly and blindness is blunted. Those not intimate with the script may be satisfied by the story of an out of touch woman spinning increasingly out of control, but those who know it will likely feel shortchanged and wonder why, other than to create a more palatable running time for a contemporary audience, this play should be so altered.
Still, there are pleasures to be had. Dianne Wiest is heartbreaking as Ranevskaya, playing her as a woman trapped in her delusions and powerless to change them. Ranevskaya’s central tragedy, thankfully, is unchanged form the original.
John Turturro is Lopakhin, a former servant who has risen to be a successful businessman — a popular trope of 19th century literature, used, for example, by Dickens in “Bleak House” — and can save the home but change its nature. Turturro is both aggressive and shy, mindful of his former place as well as his current power, but what’s lacking is his obvious love for Ranevskaya, which is pivotal to his later tragedy.
There are also fine performances by Josh Hamilton as Trofimov, a former tutor; Daniel Davis as Gaev, Ranevskaya’s equally deluded brother; and Juliet Rylance as Varya, Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter. Still, for all their engaging work, their truncated roles render them confusing, limiting their chance to enhance the play’s scale and clarity.
Director Andrei Belgrader’s focus on romance among the characters rather than the larger world surrounding them is painfully obvious at the end when the former serf Firs is left behind in the house and dies. Chekov’s famous stage direction calls for “a far-off sound like a string snapping” followed by stillness and then sounds of an axe on the orchard. Belgrader has eliminated this, and so robs the audience of a defining and climactic moment, to say nothing of ignoring Chekhov’s view that the world goes on regardless of our petty dramas. It’s a perfect example of what’s missing from this worthy, though unfortunately misguided, effort.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m.