Worried About the War? Why Not Forget Your Troubles at Little Fish

Forgive my uncharacteristically murderous mood, but I’ve just come from a new musical about a neurotic, woebegone girl from Buffalo who finds it very hard to give up smoking. Pardon me while I untangle my duct tape. Am I alone in thinking this isn’t the best choice Michael John LaChiusa could have made right now? Isn’t it a dead issue, anyway? Nobody smokes any more. And if you do smoke, nobody cares about your personal problems, and nobody should. There are bigger things, yes?

Now obviously, Mr. LaChiusa and the good folks at the Second Stage Theater don’t see it that way. Who knows what they see. Maybe they’re thinking: Worried about the war? Feeling bad about terrorism, the plunging economy or just getting by? Why not forget your troubles at Little Fish , the new musical about giving up smoking?

But Mr. LaChiusa and his director/choreographer, Graciela Daniele, do see a rationale behind their musical and its story of Charlotte, the smoker. According to The Times , both the composer and director believe that Charlotte’s struggle to quit smoking is “a metaphor for the crises that force people to reconsider who they are and what is important. Mr. LaChiusa said the musical was his oblique response to Sept. 11 …. “

Hence the opening song about nicotine withdrawal, I assume, with its rousing chorus of “Puff-puff-puff / You wanna go wanna go wanna go wanna go / Puff-puff-puff-puff.” As you can tell, I’m in no mood for all this huff and puff. I’m sorry to single out the talented Mr. LaChiusa, of Hello Again and Marie Christine , for such harsh criticism. But does he seriously wish us to believe the nightmare of 9/11 has any relevance here?

Little Fish is a modest musical comedy, for heaven’s sake. And I’m afraid it’s a showbiz story that’s a whopping cliché. Look at the outline of its shaky libretto: Smoking ingenue wants to be writer. Splits with horrible boyfriend. Flees Buffalo for adventure in New York. Gives up smoking. Grows miserable. Has story accepted by New Yorker . Still miserable. Can’t find love. Meets other unhappy people and usual Chelsea weirdos. Joins Y. Swims, jogs. Still dreams of smoking. Learns to love people as they are just before curtain comes down. Free at last. The End.

It can’t be a good idea to describe your heroine as an uninteresting, characterless blob. The heroine of the 90-minute show (which has been adapted from two Deborah Eisenberg short stories) is described by her ex-boyfriend thus: “You’re like the Blob. You remember that movie. The Blob ? You’re as sentient as protoplasm. But you’re as sentient as protoplasm can get. You’re devoid of even taxonomic attributes …. “

What a charmer he is. And what a wordsmith! But poor Charlotte (Jennifer Laura Thompson) is certainly blob- ish -a humorless blank, a dispiriting drag. She comes out with stuff like, “Maybe a few months from now I’ll find myself perfectly, happily normal in my substantiality.” Well, not if she doesn’t lose her sentient protoplasm she won’t.

Who talks this way? Mr. LaChiusa is a well-known disciple of Stephen Sondheim, but that’s no excuse. The unfortunately named Cinder (Lea DeLaria from downtown central casting) is the coke-snorting owner of a Chelsea dress shop who offers prim Charlotte a room. Here’s Cinder musing, for some bewilderingly blah reason, on the expression “between my ribs”:

“‘Between my ribs’ sounds like you’ve only got two ribs. ‘Between my ribs.’ Like when people say, ‘between my teeth.’ ‘I’ve got something caught between my teeth.’ I think you should say ‘among my teeth.’ ‘I’ve got something caught among my teeth.’ Well, no-that doesn’t work, either, does it? ‘Cause you can only get something caught-oh God-between two teeth.”

I say it’s spinach and the heck with it. The small debt Mr. LaChiusa’s libretto owes to the alienated hero of Mr. Sondheim’s 1970 Company is clear. But within Company ‘s urban angst and sourness is a brilliant score (“The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Another Hundred People”). Mr. LaChiusa’s flimsy songs of woe don’t ignite. For instance, a beautiful girl informs us that beauty is only skin deep: “Oh, what I’d give to get to live / Just one day without someone saying / ‘Wow, you’re beautiful …. ‘” But do we believe her? Do we care? A middle-aged loser has a drunk seduction song, Kathy suspects she has breast cancer and sings about Peru, Marco gets a black eye from his boyfriend because he’s cheated on him with another guy, and our wan heroine Charlotte has a big showdown with furious Cinder over a towel. And all because of smoking.

In any case, the show comes unglued about midway. The jogging scenes at the Y have the cast running literally in circles. This isn’t choreographer Ms. Daniele’s finest hour. Her swimming image is neat (but it isn’t new). Nothing seems new or real or necessary . There’s the usual all-purpose set with skyscraper backdrops. Even Charlotte’s 11th-hour revelation sounds fishy to me:

I had to walk through fire

To actually see

McCartney said it perfect:

“Let it be.”

Then let it be. Walk through fire, indeed. With Sir Paul McCartney. God love us! There is no fire. Hence the smug parting message of Little Fish : Learn to swim with the tide, not against. I’m with those who swim against. I am for all those whose bruised hearts wish to find another way.

The company known as Theatre for a New Audience has found another way-and let attention be paid, if only briefly. Their recent production of Julius Caesar confirms Karin Coonrod as the leading director of Shakespeare in America. Her unshowy knowledge of the text and clear-eyed imaginative intelligence make a thrilling contribution. Against the populist grain, she believes in true ensemble work. No guest appearances by Kevin Kline!

I’ve little doubt that if Theatre for a New Audience were visiting us from England, the Anglophile Times and the entire town would be at its feet as sure as day follows night. But to swim in the untroubled waters of a safe Twelfth Night is no adventurous thing, and the intentions of Theatre for a New Audience are different and have established an informed following. The chilling clarity of the fine Caesar production found the present in the convulsive past, and something fresh was discovered in the corrupt, foul political air: It was melancholy. It’s the first time the great play has ever made me feel sad-and fearful, too. For never has the “Ides of March” speech seemed such a portent, never so urgent.

Worried About the War? Why Not Forget Your Troubles at Little Fish