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Theatre in Review: Hundred Days (New York Theatre Workshop)/Cross That River (59E59)

Top: Shaun and Abigail Benson/ Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Maya Azucena. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This week offers two so-called musicals that are really song cycles given concert presentations. I hope this isn't a trend. Hundred Days introduces us to the Bengsons, a musical duo who will, after their current run, return later in the season with a show at Ars Nova. (So perhaps it is a trend.) This being an autobiographical piece, Shaun Bengson is quick to assert that they are a married couple. "One time a person came to see our show and thought we were brother and sister, and it was extra dark." "It gets real Greek, real quick," quips Abigail Benson.

Well, not really. Hundred Days, an attempt at mythologizing their relationship, plays around with tragedy without ever coming close. It consists of them narrating the story of how they met, married, and faced their first crisis, punctuated with songs. As Abigail tells it, she had a vision, at the age of fifteen, of the man who would be her soulmate; among the salient points, he appeared in a nimbus of light and was ultimately revealed sitting in a diner booth. About a decade later, she finds herself sitting in a diner booth in Astoria with Shaun, whom she has just met and -- Is it a trick of the sunlight? Something about the fluorescent units overhead? -- he is glowing.

And that is that: Abigail immediately drops her live-in boyfriend and transfers all her worldly possessions to Shaun's apartment. ("Totally reasonable second date stuff," she notes, wryly.) This turn of events is especially awkward, since Max, Shaun's longtime best friend, is at that moment driving cross-country to move in with him; that's the last we ever hear of Max. In three months, Shaun and Abigail are married.

A large, dark thunderhead looms on their horizon, however. "When I was fifteen years old my family went through a type of storm," Abigail says. "Some of the people in my family lost their minds. And because of that, others in my family ended up hospitalized or dead. The house I was raised in still stood. But Home was gone, leveled, the ground salted." That's certainly intriguing, and when she and Shaun are in a minor car accident and he requires stitches, Abigail flashes to another part of her dream, in which a doctor warned that the man she loved would die in a hundred days. Whether she believes the dream or can't discuss her family trauma with Shaun -- or it suddenly dawns on her that she has made a binding commitment to a man she barely knows -- Abigail flees. This cues a song, "Three-Legged Dog," with lyrics that lay bare her terrible torment: "I'm a dog in a trap/I'm a dog in a trap/Gonna chew off my foot/And leave it behind/And leave it behind/In the ashes and soot/So the pain in my skin/And the pain in my mind/Will flood/Down the hill." In this number, Abigail delivers some of the most unearthly vocals that I have heard in a long, long time -- panic and distress converted into ululations more disturbing than any words.

Obviously, however -- we are, after all, seeing a show featuring The Bengsons -- the couple worked it out. And, seeing them onstage, one feels certain they are tuned in to the same unearthly wavelength. Abigail seems to harbor in one body both an unguarded ingenue and a woman of considerable sorrow, her faces of innocence and experience replacing each other in rapid succession. There's something indefinable lurking behind her radiant smile that suggests it was purchased at a steep price. Shaun calls to mind a pixie attending accounting school, his button-down appearance and wary expression masking a sly sense of humor. Like Abigail, he's aware that the ground on which he walks is filled with trap doors, and for good reason: His father, a Lutheran pastor, lost his belief in hell; as a result, he was out of a job and Shaun's friends deserted him, a strange and bitter lesson for a young boy to learn.

They can be amusing about their foibles: "Not all vegans are insufferable, but I was, because I was a vegan with a message," Shaun says. (The veganism went the way of all flesh when he met Abigail.) Some of their songs are quite fetching, including "I Will Wait for You," described by Shaun as "the sound of introverts pining" and shaped with ravishing vocal harmonies. They are backed by a first-rate group of musicians, including Jo Lampert (late of Joan of Arc: Into the Fire), who delivers a charmer titled "God Can Be a City Boy." But it isn't very long into Hundred Days before the feeling sets in that the Bengsons aren't really playing fair with us. Abigail never describes the events that shattered her family -- she coyly reveals one or two details, but they don't rise to the level of the trauma that she claims -- apparently gambling that the intensity of "Three-Legged Dog" will communicate all we need to know. But, with only her agony on display and no sense of its origin, she comes off as ulterior, a diva showing off her range.

The scene that follows, in which Abigail and Shaun end up in, yes, a diner, tentatively laying out what each decade of their possible future might be like, is meant to charm, but, to my ears, they sound like children impersonating how they think adults behave. We're supposed to see them as brave romantics who dare to open themselves up to each other, no matter the risk -- but the risk they face is one they created themselves with their rash decision-making. This, combined with their pretend confidences to the audience, leaves one with the feeling that the Bengsons, for all their surface charm, are a self-involved and self-dramatizing pair. Enough about us, they seem to say, What do you think about us?

Even so, Hundred Days is informed by real talent and enjoys a sleek production directed by Anne Kauffman and featuring moodily effective lighting by Andrew Hungerford and impeccable sound design by Nicholas Pope. Cross That River is another, far-less-appealing attraction. Designed to educate the audience about the black cowboys of the post-Civil War era, it's the live equivalent of the concept albums that songwriters like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice used to put out to popularize a score in advance of a production. The book, by Allan and Pat Harris, is barely a book at all: It consists mostly of narration and a series of discrete episodes in the life of the main character, Blue, a runaway slave who ends up in Texas, where he has many adventures over the years.

The songs, which have some pleasant, MOR-style melodies by Allan Harris (too many in fact; they blur together), don't really advance the story, since there really is none. They are furthermore undone by cliché-strewn lyrics that are soggy with inspiration. The young Blue sings "I'm going to soar/Beyond these fields and pastures in my mind/I'm going to soar/and find the where the how the reason why/I'm going to soar and seek my place within that great design." Courtney, a white girl, sings about their love that can never be: "I've seen the truth about the way/Things are today/The painting in my heart/Is black and white not grey." Mama Lila, who raises Blue, belts the following: "I must believe/That all I've learned about you it is true/I must believe/Just like before you're here to see me through/I must believe/This living hell has not been all in vain/I must believe that soon you'll call my name." Arriving in the West, Blue, in a burst of patriotism, sings, "See this land, it stands for freedom/Far and wide as you can see/See that sky that we stand under/It turns from black to white like you and me." After an hour or so of this, you might be ready to head for lands far and wide yourself.

The cast does whatever can be done with such material, and Maya Azucena, in an array of roles, displays a roof-rattling vocal range; it would be nice to see her again under other circumstances. The other singers are all perfectly good and the musicians are excellent. Given the exigencies of fitting four singers and six musicians on the stage at 59E59's Theater B, design credits are necessarily basic, although Norman Riley's sound design is pleasingly transparent. This one is a nonstarter, however. From so much uplift, you could get a headache. -- David Barbour

(7 December 2017)

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