America’s Chekhov Still Juicy; Sondheim’s Roadshow Blows a Flat

Road Show has ended up an honorable misfire. But why Mr. Sondheim should have been so obsessed with the marginal

Road Show has ended up an honorable misfire. But why Mr. Sondheim should have been so obsessed with the marginal early-20th-century lives and adventures of the Mizner brothers is a puzzle. Addison Mizner’s claim to fame were his awesomely whimsical architectural designs for the swanky homes of 1920s Palm Beach society; his brother was a cheap con artist and sometime entrepreneur and playwright. Neither of them is an American legend or archetype in the perversely iconic sense of Mr. Sondheim’s cast of presidential killers in Assassins.

John Weidman’s script for Road Show (he also wrote Assassins) is a laboriously reductive sideshow of the American Dream gone haywire. What was intended as a tale of dizzying fraternal ambition and debauchery is a repetitively sour 100-minute slog. A tentative scene of stoned necrophilia between Wilson Mizner and his dead mama doesn’t help at all.

We’re meant to believe the brothers are joined at the hip like Laurel and Hardy, but they scarcely seem related, and they’re certainly not any fun. The unpleasant, cheap swindler Wilson (Michael Ceveris) is little more than a crazed cipher, while Addison (Alexander Gemignani) is a troubled homosexual smitten with a stereotypical upper-crust dilettante who goes by the name of Claybourne Elder (although he’s younger).

As the lyric to the opening song puts it, “God, what a waste.” This isn’t one of Mr. Sondheim’s masterly scores (“There’s a road straight ahead/ There’s a century just beginning/ There’s a land of opportunity and more …”), but Road Show does include memorable songs, among them an enduring Sondheim anthem to love and loss, “Isn’t He Something”:

 

He’s having the time of his life,

Life filled to the brim.

And I’ve had the time of my life,

Living through him.

 

Veteran British director John Doyle’s gimmick with his previous Sondheim productions (Sweeney Todd and Company) was to have his entire casts play musical instruments. Badly. It made his reputation in New York, however. I’m glad to say that Road Show’s offstage musical ensemble is first rate. Mr. Doyle has nonetheless directed a glumly lifeless production with a static all-purpose set, which he also designed—that old monochrome standby: a wall of trunks, crates and filing cabinets, with 10 members of the chorus lolling among them in various stiff poses trying to appear equally neutral.

The director ends practically every other scene with a blizzard of counterfeit greenbacks. (It must be a metaphor.) Sometimes some of the $100 bills floated into the front rows of the house, where hopeful audience members tried eagerly to grab them.

jheilpern@observer.com

America’s Chekhov Still Juicy; Sondheim’s Roadshow Blows a Flat