Saturday, May 13, 2017

This Meal Could Use Some Spice

The Most Beautiful Room in New York -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru May 28

The cast. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The Most Beautiful Room in New York, billed as “A new musical about food and family,” is in its premiere run at Long Wharf Theatre. Blessed with a stellar cast, the show itself is something less than a gourmet meal. In fact, what’s served up, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, seems to have been concocted from recipes that go back to Grandma’s day, bland fare that has a bit of salt and pepper in it (and some sugar) but nothing that would spark your palate or make you call out for a second serving.

With music by David Shire and book and lyrics by Adam Gopnik, Room is set primarily in a Manhattan that is undergoing profound changes that include rapacious real estate deals, soaring rents and the razing of old neighborhoods to make way for the new. Many established businesses are being squeezed out, including Table (once called La Table, but the L and the A mysteriously disappeared – don’t worry, all will be revealed), a cozy Union Square restaurant owned by David (Matt Bogart), the chef, and his wife Claire (Anastasia Barzee), the manager. As the musical opens, the two are faced with a rent increase they cannot afford. Pushed to the wall, David comes up with a “plan” – he will reach out to Sergio (Constantine Maroulis), a one-time friend who has made it big in the “Foodie” world with his trendy restaurants, TV shows and books. Claire is not so enthusiastic about the “plan” because she and Sergio have a “history.”

What is cloyingly established in the opening number, “Something’s Growing,” is that the proprietors of Table and their friends who run an outdoor farmers’ market are salt-of-the-earth folks. They care (achingly so) about the neighborhood and the environment and the Green movement and, well, whatever is trendy to care about. There’s not a bad apple in the barrel. Into this Edenic setting Sergio will slither, along with Irwin (Allan K. Washington), a slick suit.

When we’re not in Union Square we’re in Bensonhurst. What’s the connection, other than the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, after one of the early farmers’ market love-fests, Bix (Tyler Jones), son of David and Claire, is handed a bag of mozzarella cheese (all-natural of course) to deliver to a pizzeria in Brooklyn (there being no mozzarella available in that particular borough). Thus, Bix is introduced to Carlo (Mark Nelson), the pizzeria’s owner, a pontificating, paper-tiger anarchist. (Yes, the plot thickens, and a revelation near the end of the evening will make this happenstance meeting even more contrived). More to the point, he also meets Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo’s daughter, and it’s puppy-love at first sight.

It’s no spoiler that David has made a Mephistophelean deal with Sergio, for that’s telegraphed early on. Over the course of Room’s two-plus hours (it seems longer), David’s marriage and ideals, and Claire’s fidelity to her marriage vows, will be challenged. The question arises: will anyone in the audience care? That remains to be seen.

Okay, this is a musical after all, so what about the songs? Well, they are banal at best, with many of them seeming to sound the same. Delivered by some fine voices, the numbers seldom rise above delivery of plot points, and the emotions they attempt to convey seem to float on the surface of the lyrics. None of them cut to the quick, as they do in, say, Next to Normal.

Referencing that musical spotlights the basic problem with Room: these aren’t real people, they’re basically cardboard characters that this fine cast labors to bring to life, but it’s an onerous task. There’s really no “life” in what is proffered as a slice-of-life look at the impact change has on a group of people, and thus there’s really no reason for the audience to connect with what’s occurring on the stage.

You know there’s an audience commitment problem when the various sets, designed by Michael Yeargan (restaurant and kitchen, farmers’ market and pizzeria), seem to create more attention and enthusiasm than what occurs in front of them. Gopnik’s recipe for this bland dish includes Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), David and Claire’s precocious tween daughter, Natasha (Anne Horak), Sergios current arm candy, and Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy) and Gloria (Danielle Ferland), the lovers who run the farmers’ market and are often eager to give advice on life and love, as is Carlo who, in a rather painfully “touching” scene, counsels David, via song, about the value of family (see, he really isn’t such a crusty old anarchist after all). Equally painful is Sergio’s final scene with David and Claire in which he reveals that he’s really a snake with a heart of gold. None of this, unfortunately, is trenchant theater.

Room ends with a one-big-happy-family set-piece (“Our Table”) that seems to evoke 50s TV fare. There may be sharks in the water out there, but here at our table all’s right with the world. I guess it’s supposed to be life-affirming, so everyone just click their heels together and whisper, “There’s no place like our table.”

The Most Beautiful Room in New York runs through May 28. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

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