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Theatre in Review: The Evolution of Mann (The Cell)

Leslie Hiatt, Max Crumm. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This new musical wants to be a status report on the agonies of contemporary singles, but, alas, it feels stuck in its own personal time warp. The marriage-mad hero, Henry Mann, having attended no fewer than a dozen weddings in as many months, is beginning to fear that his turn will never come. The last straw is an invitation from Sheila, his ex, who dumped him on the very day that he had planned to produce a diamond. Refusing to take this humiliation lying down, he girds his loins, so to speak, and vows that by the time Sheila's wedding rolls around, he will attend, accompanied by his fiancee -- whoever she may be.

This is not an unworkable premise for a musical -- think Bridget Jones as a slightly schlumpy/cute Manhattan male singleton -- but, only a few minutes in, a certain unreality creeps into Dan Elish's book. Gwen, Henry's lesbian roommate, fixes him up with Tamar, who works in PR and whose big selling point is "she thinks the Beatles' best song of all time is 'Glass Onion'." As it happens, Tamar turns out to be a perfect terror, a walking diagnostic manual of relationship issues who gets her kicks from keeping Henry permanently on a string. As a result, he ignores Christine, a winsome schoolteacher who writes fetching ballads in her spare time. In one of them, a lament for a relationship that never was, she sings, "Maybe you will never know his favorite band at Woodstock/His favorite film by Hitchcock." Anyway, Henry is by now totally in thrall to Tamar, who vows to produce a showcase of the musical he has written, based on The Great Gatsby.

The Beatles? Hitchcock? F. Scott Fitzgerald? If these characters met at a reunion of the class of '69, it might be believable. But for a group collectively hovering around the age of thirty, their interests are weirdly middle-aged. Add in the fact that Gwen is a performance artist who, in her latest project, "plays an amoeba who lectures at Harvard," and you would be justified in wondering if The Evolution of Mann -- which is based on the 2005 novel Nine Wives, by Elish -- hasn't been beamed to us from some Off Broadway theatre of the John Lindsay era.

And, indeed, for all its strenuous attempts at modernity -- half of its plot twists are delivered via text message -- The Evolution of Mann's heart is in the Borscht Belt. Complaining about all those weddings, Henry adds, "And one of them was my dad's, to a thirty-year-old that I used to date." (You'll have to apply your own rimshot for that one.) Gwen, noting how, at one of those receptions, Henry threw himself at a lady rabbi, sings, "You took her hand, did the hora/Then unscrolled her Torah." Sheila's fiance is named Thor, a name that we are supposed to find hilarious. Tamar, humiliatingly, dresses Henry in a "hip" wardrobe, complete with a yellow beret. "It's important to cultivate a downtown writer bohemian image," he says, by way of explanation, while looking like no hipster ever. She also convinces him to reset his Gatsby musical in Havana, which means the title character becomes Che Gatsby. I tell you, ninety minutes of The Evolution of Mann is better than a summer in the Catskills, circa 1965.

If the score -- music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen, additional lyrics by Elish -- wanders all over the map in terms of quality, it does have a few nice things. That ballad for the hapless Christine, titled "It's Only a First Date," marries a thoughtful lyric to a pleasantly melancholy melody. Gwen, whose own marriage went south, thanks to her cheating, gets a nicely introspective eleven o'clock number, "The Unromantic Things," about the mundane details that provide the glue in any relationship. "Keeping My Eye on the Ball," sung by a sadder-but-wiser Henry, is an attractive show closer, cleverly applying the basketball to the dating game. But there are also numbers like "Hard," about the difficulty of slow dancing when one has an erection.

We're supposed to be charmed by the self-involved, immature Henry, but it's an uphill battle, which doesn't make things easy for Max Crumm, who plays him -- especially when he is being led around by the superficial, idiotic Tamar or when he obsesses over poor Christine's unibrow. He's a pro, but, really, there's a limit to what anyone can do with this material. Leslie Hiatt does her best as the tough-talking, but heartbroken Gwen, although even if she had the combined skills of Carol Burnett and Tina Fey, she wouldn't be able to make that amoeba bit work. Allie Trimm, last seen on Broadway in 13 and the revival of Bye Bye Birdie, has grown up to become a sly sketch artist who blithely impersonates a gallery of cliched female characters that includes Tamar, Christine, Sheila, and Henry's mother, a housewife/therapist whose only client is her cleaning lady.

Libby Stadstad has designed one of those catwalk-style stages that work well in the singular confines of The Cell's 23rd Street venue, and she has outfitted it with amusing touches like a trap door containing two glasses of white wine. Overhead is a pair of hanging clear-plastic sculptures, lined in LED tape, depicting city skylines. Nathan Scheuer's clever projections include flames, wedding invitations, the lyrics to the Gatsby musical, and city scenes. Siena Zoe Allen's costumes allow Trimm to switch characters with astonishing speed. Alan Waters' sound design includes the rattle of the subway, applause, and a Xerox machine. Chris Steckel's lighting demonstrates the limits of LED lighting in theatrical situations, with garish saturated colors and sometimes inadequate coverage of the actors' faces.

Alas, The Evolution of Mann feels beamed in from Musical Comedy Land, that alternate universe where the conflicts are forced, the gags are a little moldy, and the behavior of the natives only superficially resembles that of human beings. As for Henry, best of luck getting to that wedding reception. -- David Barbour


(4 October 2018)

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