Nowhere Men

“Lennon” is stripped of real passion; Mr. Chips as an oblivious closet case

As difficult as it is to conceive in the murky morass that is entertainment today, there really was a time when an artist’s work was more important than the artist’s personality. While always intriguing, given humans’ apparently insatiable gossip gene, celebrity doings were separate from the work, and the power of music, art, or film came from the impact the piece had in and of itself.

That began to change with John Lennon, who used his international fame to make statements about peace, who used the expanding and voracious media in the early 1970s to get people talking. For all the controversy about posing nude for an album cover or a multi-day press conference from bed with Yoko Ono, Lennon’s brilliance, aside from his music, was that, more than any of the other Beatles, he understood how the world was changing and how he was evolving as an artist and a man within that dynamic.

How tragic that such a spirit should be so totally stifled by the lazy, incoherent, and infantile mess that is “Lennon,” the musical. The only positive thing that can be said about Don Scardino’s pathetic excuse for a Broadway show—with more than a little help from Yoko Ono Lennon, according to the program—is that the two understand how the world works in 2005, and it’s a sad commentary indeed.

Instead of passion, there is pandering to the collective memory and easy emotionality of recognizable songs. The producers know that the Broadway audience seems to demand nothing more than to applaud for themselves and their memory of songs. They’re not terribly interested in whatever is actually occurring onstage. And so we have the so-called jukebox musical, though in this case it’s a cynical joke.

In writing what he has the chutzpah to call the show’s “book,” Scardino has evidently pimped himself out to Ono to create an MTV-style retrospective that attempts to make her the sympathetic center of the story. Even the film clip of Lennon and Ono at the end of the show––blessedly cut way down since the show was in previews––focuses on Ono who stares at the camera with a look that can only be called pretentious vacuity. The show is as formulaic as the TV show “Behind the Music,” and sucks the soul of Lennon’s art. Ono’s character reminds us a good deal of her art as well.

How did this go so wrong? It starts with the conceit of the show. Though it is a fairly literal biography, Scardino has chosen to have Lennon portrayed by various members of the company without respect to time, age, or race. This is a nod to Lennon’s view that as people we are all one. Rather than showing the universality of Lennon and his music, though, this concept fragments the narrative and undermines the ability of the man to emerge from the music. As a result, there is not one single believable emotion in this show, and such transforming events as the Vietnam War, the struggle for women’s rights, and the reach of government into private lives are superficial set dressing. The fact that each of these issues has echoes in our world today, which should render Lennon’s music and beliefs more relevant, has been ignored in favor of personal details of fatherhood, infidelity, and the stalwart presence of a good woman who loves her wayward man. The result of this presentation is a man, who for all his artistry, is boring––yikes, even conventional––a Nowhere Man even if passionate about his beliefs. This is not the sort of figure we go to see Broadway shows about.

Unfortunately, the emotional black hole extends to the singing. The cast, mostly young, performs the songs with the kind of “American Idol” presentation that is a combination of vocal tricks and screaming that shuts out the music’s meaning and spirit. Most of the cast’s mugging and straining fail, though Will Chase, Mandy Gonzalez, and Julie Danao-Salkin achieve some honesty in their performances, though not consistently. Scardino has wasted a cast that clearly has singing skills; he seems not to trust his material.

Similarly, Joseph Malone delivers juvenile choreography and sound designer Bobby Aitken mixes, edits, and enhances what remains of the show’s humanity well past an inch of its life. Cold, pre-packaged, and risk-averse, one could only imagine the horror with which John Lennon would greet this decimation of his life and work. But don’t forget Yoko! Okay?

There isn’t a performance in “The Dear Boy” that is anything less than well done. Each of the four actors in Dan O’Brien’s new play finds the center of his or her character and works with a commitment that is constantly intriguing and interesting. This is a good thing because I haven’t got a clue what this play is about or what it is other than an extended character study.

James Flanagan is a retiring English teacher on the verge of retirement who likes the boys better than the girls. His is perhaps a latent homosexual, but is more asexual overall. He has called into his office one James Doyle whose writing has troubled the elder teacher and who has inexplicably brought a gun to school, which Flanagan confiscates. The scene then shifts to a faculty party where petty aggravations about who will be the next chair of the English department flare as one teacher, Richard, feels he’s being passed over for the slot because he’s gay.

Enter Elise, another member of the English faculty. She is getting over a bad break-up by sleeping with every man in sight. She takes Flanagan home, which is a failure. Flanagan then tries to make up with the boy, James, returns his gun without reporting him, and decides to coach him on his writing. Curtain.

There is no consistent throughline, and we are supposed to rely on offstage events that are neither shown nor fully explained to understand the motivations of the characters, but we can’t fully, and so must live with the confusion and illogic and accept that a quasi-British, effete English teacher could survive in a school setting and not know he was an object of ridicule from faculty and staff.

Despite the play’s shortcomings, director Michael John Garcés has made some internal sense out of it––the individual scenes tend to work in isolation, even if the whole doesn’t hang together.

Daniel Gerroll finds the anxiety and fear in Flanagan with a kind of nervous physicality that gives the character an inner life the script does not. Dan McCabe is fine as James, finding the perfect balance of arrogance and timidity in the young man’s life. T. Scott Cunningham is excellent as Richard, and though the script gives the character only one dimension, the actor’s performance fleshes it out. Susan Parfour (who was sublime in “Swimming in the Shallows”) once again shines in this piece as Elise, a lost young woman bumping aimlessly and sadly through life and who at 29 seems unable to find a place for herself. Parfour’s often deadpan delivery masks a character in turmoil that can often be heartbreaking.

O’Brien can write heartfelt and believable characters, even if the plotting is contrived and he seems over his head in making it all work together, but as a playwright he is clearly on the way. When his plays catch up to his talent, he is likely to be a force to be reckoned with.

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