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Flash Review 2, 3-25: New House
Curran Lends 'Graces' to Awkward "Albertine"

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- "My Life With Albertine," a new musical about the Albertine passages in Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" now playing at Playwrights Horizons, moves stiltedly between effete refinement and Fox Channel vulgarity, like a loud, soused guest at a black tie party. It is directed by Richard Nelson, who also wrote the book, with music by Ricky Ian Gordon. The two co-wrote the sometimes awkward lyrics, which unfortunately linger in the mind to negate many of the positives the show has to offer.

Another problem is the casting of Chad Kimball as the young Marcel. He can sing, but even portraying an asthmathic, pathologically jealous artiste, he is too unsympathetic to earn our steady interest. He also contrasts starkly with the Narrator, an older Proust played by Brent Carver, who evokes a great deal of pathos. Kimball is too physically robust to be believable as a sickly young man who fears getting a chill, and rather than coming across as someone with refined and demanding tastes, he is just unappealingly petulant.

The title role is played by Kelli O'Hara, whose red mane -- wildly flowing, or pinned neatly in a bun -- reflects the different aspects of Albertine which supposedly enchanted Proust. Here O'Hara is given the chance to cut loose more than in "The Sweet Smell of Success," an undeserved punchbag of a show. But I got the sense that she was working hard at being wild; well-behaved poise and a sweet demeanor seem to be default behaviors for her.

Sean Curran's contribution as choreographer is small but significant. It is in the brief dances that Albertine seems most vibrant and dimensional. In "Ferret Song," she joins with two women (Caroline McMahon and Brooke Sunny Moriber, both excellent) to make a version of the three graces, playfully skipping and passing under bridges formed with linked arms. In another dance, Albertine dances flirtatiously with the Amazonian Mlle. Lea (played by the charismatic Emily Skinner), infuriating Marcel.

A major question persists. Besides Proust's wealth, evident in his spectacular house with a living room large enough to accommodate a small proscenium theater (where the show-within is performed), and his obsessive devotion to her, it's really not clear what Albertine sees in him. He lures her back from her sapphic encounters, perhaps less jealous than frustrated at his own inability to live gay life freely.

The process of Proust maturing is handled skillfully and simply as the elder Proust is onstage more and more, moving closer to the young Marcel each time, until both young and old Marcels wear the same style jacket and inhabit the same spotlight. At one point, inseparable, they gang up on poor Albertine, who is of course never able to please Marcel. Just as the show gets on its legs a bit, the dual Marcels are forced to sing (and reprise) "Sometimes," which contains lyrics so shockingly artless that I can't dignify them by printing them. My heart went out to the actors, forced to keep a straight face while reciting them. Otherwise, Gordon can write silky, swelling songs, stretching words over unpredictable intervals. In "The Letters," the whole cast stands in a line downstage and belts the song to memorable effect.

Thomas Lynch designed the unusual and effective set. When the chorus was 'offstage,' they sat in the elegant salon setting to the sides of the mini-proscenium and behaved as if they were not onstage, even when they sang. The band sat upstage on a mezzanine platform, in full view the entire show. Charles Prince led the group, to which an accordion added a dash of period elan. Susan Hilferty designed the natty costumes, and James Ingalls the lighting. This was the first production in the recently renovated Playwrights Horizons which, despite some finishing touches still necessary, is a terrific little theater.

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