Volume 75, Number 25 | November 09 -15, 2005

Theater

SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE
Words and Music By Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Ted Sperling
Through December 4
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
(212 239-6200, www.publictheater.org)

Photo by Michal Daniel

“See What I Wanna See”: a tale of two musicals that don’t quite connect.

When seeing is not believing

By Steven Snyder

“See What I Wanna See,” Michael John LaChiusa’s disjointed new musical at the Public Theater, is a production obsessed with the truth — particularly how it can be manipulated and skewed by differences in perception, memory, and faith.

But just as his many characters ultimately come to understand that truth lies in the mind of the beholder, the audience comes to a very similar conclusion about LaChiusa’s unfocused approach, namely that some truths and stories cut to the soul, while others remain beyond our grasp.

This is the contradiction that ultimately makes “See What I Wanna See” a hesitant mix of the captivating and the confusing. As a complete project, it is part brilliant and part routine, a tale of two musicals that never quite connect.

Based on the literature of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose “In the Grove” inspired the 1951 Akira Kurosawa film “Rashomon,” “See What I Wanna See” will strike anyone familiar with the film as profoundly derivative. In that classic, four people recount a murder in four very different ways, and any sense of an objective truth is shattered by each set of biases and agendas.

This time around, LaChiusa updates the story to 1950s New York, around the time “Rashomon” premiered in the city. Here, the story plays out much like the classic. A businessman (Marc Kudisch) is found dead in Central Park. His wife (Idina Menzel) is attacked, but survives. An arrested gangster, (Aaron Lohr) brags about his crime under interrogation. A stammering witness (Henry Stram) keeps changing his story.

This first act moves briskly, adeptly jumping from storyline to storyline and building to a rather dramatic chorus of voices, each singing their own version of how this man died and how his wife may or may not have been involved. But as these surface stories cross over each other, something feels unmistakably distant and detached. The more intriguing issues of betrayal and trust are brushed over so that more layers can be piled upon a mystery that ends up feeling denser, but not necessarily richer.

Audiences, then, will likely be taken aback when the musical’s impassioned second act shifts time, tone, and temperament, correcting almost every shortcoming in the first act.

Jumping ahead to post-Sept. 11 New York City, and narrated by Stram as a distraught priest who lost his faith after the towers fell, the second act is a moving exploration of despair and redemption amid a city in fear. The priest, in his new quest to mock and shun religion, starts prophesizing that a miracle will occur in Central Park.

While he’s sure no miracle will arrive, his promise leads him to meet a laid-off accountant (Kudisch), a desperate-to-believe junkie (Menzel) and to reconnect with his aunt (Mary Testa), a devout atheist.

Much of the same discussions about truth and faith—what faith really means, what it is worth, and what constitutes a miracle—lead this second half, but there is an immediacy to these modern-day doubts and fears that cuts to the heart of a more meaningful discussion: What is to be found in tragedy, and how is it to be overcome?

Still, there’s no mistaking the chasm between the musical’s first and second acts, and it’s a disparity that affects every aspect of the production. LaChiusa’s songs, more brooding and dark in the first act, lack the emotional rhythm of the later songs, which build to a final, climactic chorus of four skeptics yearning for the same miracle. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s detailed costumes play it safe during Act I, but pieces like the shredded business coat of the homeless accountant come alive in Act II to vividly enrich our understandings of these modern characters.

In the end, what many will wanna see more of is this second story. Powered by emotional music and captivating performances by Menzel and Stram, it is enough in itself to recommend this bipolar musical.

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