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Theatre in Review: Beardo (Pipeline Theatre Company) / Jonah and Otto (Theatre Row)

Top: Beardo's Damon Daunno. Photo: Suzi Sadler. Bottom: Jonah and Otto's Sean Gormley, Rupert Simonian. Photo: Davidawa Photography.

It may be time to book safe passage out of Russia for Dave Malloy. The composer, currently enjoying Broadway success with Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, now offers us Beardo, a fictionalized musical account of the rise and fall of Grigori Rasputin, the bizarre religious figure who insinuated himself into the Russian royal family because of his alleged ability to heal Alexei, the royal heir, of his hemophilia. All the names have been changed in Jason Craig's book, which reimagines Rasputin as Beardo, a wanderer who, possessed by an evil imp, becomes a sexual provocateur, scaling the heights of Russian aristocracy.

Beardo believes in sexual healing. "Sinning, I think, lets God inside of you," he notes, early on -- in which case he must be positively loaded with the deity. He wanders into the royal palace (the door is open, you see), informs the "Tsarista" (a term seemingly invented so it can be made to rhyme with "barista"), "I am going to grab your ass," instantly putting her in his sexual thrall. He diverts the childlike Tsar with bits of raspberry-flavored chocolate (to which the monarch has an almost orgasmic response), and, later, sends him off to the battlefront in order to "grow balls." Meanwhile, as the ladies of the court swoon over him, a gaggle of male aristocrats plot his downfall.

It's difficult to write about Beardo, because it's nearly impossible to understand what about this material attracted the creative team in the first place. Craig tells Beardo's story in a series of quick sketches, written in a purposely anachronistic style, as the above dialogue indicates; modern profanity abounds. The entire enterprise suffers from a deficit of wit and the absence of a point of view. To give you an idea of how barren of invention it is, one of the most prominent sequences in the second act features three aristocrats making plans to kill Beardo off, then making a series of failed murder attempts, as happened with Rasputin. All three are clad in tutus, however, leaping about the stage awkwardly, to allegedly comic effect; if that isn't hackneyed enough for you, the heaviest of the three is made to execute a dying-swan move, doing a split while frantically waving his arms.

That Beardo doesn't become entirely tiresome until late in the second act is largely due to Malloy's music, which ranges from furiously intense solos for Beardo to a catchy tune laying out his sexual powers to a stunning first-act finale chorus that gives voice to the gathering storm among the Tsar's dissatisfied subjects. (Beardo repeatedly tries to warn the Tsar and Tsarista that an uprising is coming, to little effect.) Craig's lyrics are wildly uneven, It's hard to know what to make of passage like this one from the song "Ladies;" "Do you know what I like about you all?/I like how you control me/Like bowling balls you bowl me/At my console you console me."

Given a book that switches tone from scene to scene, lyrics that wander all over the map, and gags all too often aimed at the lowest-common-denominator, there isn't much that the director, Ellie Heyman, can do to impose any order on such often chaotic proceedings. As Beardo, Damon Daunno, seen earlier in the season in the much more effective Hadestown, brings a wild-eyed James Dean magnetism to the role, along with some Elvis Presley-style pelvis moves, which makes it easy to understand why the ladies of St. Petersburg are lifting their skirts for him so avidly. Alex Highsmith displays a certain deadpan comic style as the Tsarista, as does Brian Bock as Beardo's main enemy at court. Nobody else makes much of an impression.

Beardo is being staged in St. John's Lutheran Church, a crumbling house of worship in Brooklyn, and Carolyn Mraz's set design relies heavily on the venue, adding some scaffolding to create additional playing areas. Mary Ellen Stebbins' lighting effectively carves the performers out of the rather sprawling space. Katja Andreiev's costumes for the Tsar and his entourage have their clever touches. The sound design, by Dan Moses Schreier and Joshua Reid, manages a remarkable level of intelligibility in what cannot be an easy space.

By the time Beardo is singing about his future Wikipedia page "dedicated to my dick," you may find your interest flagging. Neither a comic romp, a pointed satire, nor a gripping historic episode, Beardo, the musical, is little more than a superficial display of look-at-me cleverness. Malloy, at least, is capable of much more; maybe it's time to look beyond the steppes of Russia for inspiration.

I don't know what the playwright Robert Holman is capable of, but it's best to assume for the moment that Jonah and Otto doesn't tell the whole story. This is a fine example of that strange dramatic genre, the two-hander in which a pair of characters who have no reason to stay together -- in fact, it would make far more sense if one of them ran in the opposite direction -- sit around and talk and talk and talk. When the lights come up, Otto, a clergyman, is hugging a stone wall. Jonah appears to be a member of the homeless community, given that he is scruffily dressed and hauling around a shopping cart -- which, as it happens, contains an infant. "I can predict the future, but only when I know what's going to happen," he says, the first of many strange statements.

Jonah is adept at magic; he's also adept at getting money out of Otto. He is full of invective one minute -- "You're a Herbert" is one of his more printable denunciations -- and the next he is on the ground, suffering from what he calls a panic attack but which looks like an epileptic seizure. He comes across as trouble with a capital T, so Otto, naturally, decides to spend all of his available free time with him. Jonah talks about his "best mate," named Bucket Head, who killed himself. He recalls how he once set fire to the family manse. He describes how he is desperate to get to France -- the play is set on the southern coast of England -- where his girlfriend, the mother of his baby, is currently residing, tending to a sick parent. Otto confesses to being an atheist and flagrantly unfaithful to his wife. (The human resources department at the Church of England should be scheduling a review of his performance any time now.) Both men have father issues. Jonah's dad died of bowel cancer. Otto talks about keeping his distance from his Germanic parent, then preparing the old man's body for burial. And he reveals the burden of sorrow he carries, thanks to the car accident that left his daughter a near vegetable.

Its amounts to a random collection of heartbreak, spiced up by some of the most overwrought dialogue to be heard in months. "Take a staple gun to your lips and have a party with it," Jonah snaps at one point. Later, he asks, "Is your brain full of dandruff?" My favorite, "You've a syphilitic tongue, and that's a fact." Whatever can be done with lines like these, and so many others, the young actor Rupert Simonian does it; he also is technically gifted, pulling off each of his character's seizures with alarming verisimilitude. Sean Gormley, a longtime veteran of Irish Repertory Theatre productions, does his level best with Otto, who passively accepts untold amounts of abuse from Jonah. Nevertheless, under Geraldine Hughes' direction, both actors struggle to find a rationale for the things their characters are given to do and say.

The rest of the production, including Ann Beyersdorfer's setting, dominated by a large stone wall, Kate Bashore's lighting, Ian Wehrle's sound, and Katie Sue Nicklos' costumes, are all fine contributions. To me, the key scene in Jonah and Otto occurs when Jonah strips the sleeping Otto down to his skivvies. Jonah makes a fine thing out of getting the older man's shirt off without disturbing his blazer. It's quite a trick, but it makes no sense, since he also removes the jacket a minute later. The play is like that -- full of elaborate tricks that seem to mean very little. This is a production of Lost Tribe Theatre, a company that aims to facilitate the exchange of plays between American and British theatres. It's a fine ambition; I only hope that in the future they choose more carefully. -- David Barbour

(21 February 2017)

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