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Theatre in Review: Desperate Measures (York Theatre Company)/The Violin (59E59)

Top: Lauren Molina. Bottom: Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone. Photos: Carol Rosegg

What is it with Shakespeare and musical theatre these days? For decades, his comedies were fair game for song-and-dance shows -- see The Boys From Syracuse; Kiss Me, Kate; and assorted takes on Twelfth Night. (There was Rockabye Hamlet back in the Seventies, but we don't need to go into that; suffice to say that Ophelia strangled herself with her microphone cord.) This season, however, everyone is mad to musicalize the Bard's so-called problem plays. Was it only a couple of weeks ago that we had Loveless Texas, a hoedown strangely based on Love's Labour's Lost? Now comes Desperate Measures, based on, of all things, Measure for Measure. I can hardly wait for my invitation to the opening of Hello, Cymbeline!

Well, there are adaptations and there are adaptations. The creators of Loveless Texas worked themselves into a collective pretzel trying to find 20th-century analogues for the details of Shakespeare's weird and wandering plot. (It ended up being about oil rights and a bad land deal, like an episode of Dallas, but packed with kick-up-your-heels musical numbers.) The people behind Desperate Measures are much more selective: They've helped themselves to a couple of Measure for Measure's plot devices in order to spin their own rowdy, rollicking farce set in pre-statehood Arizona.

As we learn in the lively opening number, the rakish hellion Johnny Blood is in prison for murder. Never mind that it was an act of self-defense while protecting the honor of his lady love, the decidedly un-innocent Bella Rose; the territory's Teutonic governor has decreed that he be hung. Sheriff Martin Green, who arrested Johnny and has a bad conscience over it, enlists the convicted man's sister, Susanna, a postulant (about to take the name Sister Mary Jo), to plead his case. Susanna reluctantly agrees to the plan and is horrified when the governor, stricken with lust, makes her an offer: Sleep with him and Johnny goes free. If she turns the governor down, her brother will be swinging from the gallows.

Sheriff Martin, trying to salvage matters, cooks up a scheme in which Susanna will agree to the governor's depraved plan, but, at the last minute, she'll be swapped out with Bella Rose, who has already slept with all the men in town anyway. As it happens, the plan goes too well; the thoroughly deceived governor is so smitten with his mystery bed partner that he ups the ante, demanding that Susanna marry him to save Johnny.

The librettist, Peter Kellogg, presents this uninhibited tale with the slyest of winks, harvesting laughter from sexual harassment, the death penalty, and hypocritical politicians. David Friedman, best-known for his inspirational ballads, is in a holiday mood here, providing enough toe-tappers for a barn dance, with Kellogg's lyrics providing amusing running commentary on the characters' grasping and deceiving ways. Standouts include "It's Getting Hot in Here," featuring Bella vamping the audience at the local saloon; "Just for You," in which Johnny and Bella defend their many crimes as acts of love; and the insanely catchy "It's a Beautiful Day for a Lifelong Commitment," with Bella and Susanna planning another wedding-day switcheroo.

Under Bill Castellino's direction, everyone strikes exactly the right note of spoof melodrama. Emma Degerstedt's Susanna is a comic vessel of wrath, fending off the governor's leering propositions on one hand and her attraction to Sheriff Martin on the other; she does very nicely by "What is This Feeling," in which she mulls over the prospect of romance. Lauren Molina's Bella Rose is her bawdy opposite number, throwing herself into the plot's seamy complications with undisguised glee. Conor Ryan's Johnny is a most hapless rakehell, working every angle to live another day. Peter Saide invests the stalwart Sheriff Martin with a deadpan wit; he also makes the most of "Stop There," in which he struggles to maintain a professional attitude around Susanna. As the governor, Nick Wyman, his eyebrows going up as if on pulleys, his German accent thicker than a slice of limburger cheese, is an expertly cartooned villain. Gary Marachek steals more than one scene as a whiskey-sodden priest who has decided that all that God stuff is hooey, preferring to write fan letters to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

The production features a typically delightful James Morgan set, a barn interior that opens up to reveal desert vistas, and which comes with such accessories as a stained-glass window dotted with images of cacti. (The set also features amusing scene-setting signs; the one for the governor's bedroom reads "Justice sleeps here.") Nicole Wee's costumes provide comic contrast between Susanna's demure blue nun's habit and Bella Rose's rather more revealing ensembles; the twin bridal gowns seen in the climax are knockouts. Paul Miller's lighting and Julian Evans' sound design, which includes such effects as thunderclaps and horses' neighs, are also solid.

Once in a while, the sheer high spirits are allowed to slip out of control, particularly in a version of the classic vaudeville mirror routine, which earns big laughs but goes too far even for this sort of devil-may-care evening. But Desperate Measures is mostly a fast, funny, tuneful entertainment that shines in direct proportion to the disrespect it shows for its source material. Who knows? Maybe there is a good musical lurking somewhere inside Cymbeline.

The Violin, ostensibly an original work, is nevertheless haunted by the past, being a twisty potboiler cloned from the DNA of American Buffalo. Consider the similarities. Set in a cluttered storefront in a bad urban neighborhood, it brings together three characters -- an older man, a loose-cannon would-be Mr. Big, and a damaged manboy -- to plot a crime that goes wildly wrong. It may not be enough to have David Mamet calling his lawyer -- there are plenty of differences, which we'll get to in a minute -- but it certainly ensures that his spirit walks the aisles of 59E59 these nights.

Dan McCormick's play unfolds in the Avenue A tailor shop owned by the seventy-ish Giovanni; he has worked there forever, like his father, an immigrant, before him. For reasons that are not immediately clear, Giovanni -- who never married and has no family of his own -- keeps an eye on Bobby, a wiry runt who is never without a bottle of beer or a get-rich-quick scheme, and Bobby's younger brother, Terry, who hasn't been right since the day he fell out of the top bunk bed. As the play begins, Terry has walked out of another job, this time as a cab driver. (Given what we know about him, this is good news for the pedestrians of New York.) But he has departed with a souvenir: a vintage Stradivarius violin that one of his fares accidentally left behind.

Suddenly, Bobby sees his main chance: He will hold the violin for a ransom of $400,000, enough money to land him and Terry somewhere with palm trees. He goads Giovanni into coming on board as a kind of supervisor. An act of grand larceny, committed by three neophytes, requiring intensive phone negotiations -- what could possibly go wrong?

Even the most unseasoned theatregoer will immediately recognize that this plan is a recipe for disaster, and so it goes, with fault lines dividing all three men and a closetful of family secrets -- involving abuse, a frustrated adulterous romance, and the Irish mob -- that all come tumbling out. It's never dull, yet never really convincing, either and, for all the slickness of McCormick's plotting, we can see trouble coming from a mile away.

Still, The Violin goes down much more easily that you might imagine, thanks to Joseph Discher's taut direction and three tightly coiled performances. Robert LuPone neatly captures Giovanni's workaholic nature, his stoicism about his regret-ridden past, and his tough-love stance toward Bobby and Terry. The only unconvincing thing is that, at 71, LuPone looks rather too young and vigorous to be an old man whose lifetime of sewing has compromised his health. Peter Bradbury is the production's revelation, lending Bobby a spring-loaded tension that can snap shut at any second; his desperation is so strong you can almost taste it, especially in the scenes that focus on Bobby's phone negotiations with the violin's owner. He also vividly charts Bobby's tangled feelings -- devotion mixed with fury and resentment -- for Terry. The role of Terry doesn't make that much sense -- he doesn't recognize a tampon when he sees it, and he has to have the word "retard" explained to him, yet he can announce that he has had an a "epiphany" -- but Kevin Isola lends a live-wire quality to the character that makes him the play's prime agent of chaos.

Helping to ground the action in some kind of reality is Harry Feiner's storefront set, with its dirty linoleum, stained molding, heavy burgundy curtain to fend off the cold, and clothing piled everywhere. Michael McDonald's costumes and Matthew E. Adelson's lighting are both fine, as is Hao Bai's sound design, which makes good use of an extensive playlist of opera arias.

There's nothing really wrong with The Violin, aside from a certain predictability and a sense that it has been drawn from other plays rather than real life. In any case, it has been given a first-class production. I wouldn't go out of my way to seek it out, but if you end up at 59E59 some night, you'll want to stick around to see how it all comes out. -- David Barbour

(4 October 2017)

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