The Cast’s the Thing: Jenny Schwartz’s New Play Lacks a Point, but Benefits by Terrific Actors

And Christopher Lloyd steals the show in Brian Kulick’s update of Brecht

Kate Mulgrew and Kathleen Chalfant in 'Somewhere Fun.'

Kate Mulgrew and Kathleen Chalfant in ‘Somewhere Fun.’

We learned two things about Somewhere Fun, a new play at the Vineyard Theatre, from Sunday’s New York Times. The first is that Jenny Schwartz, its young playwright, revels in the workshop process, in which she spends happy years developing a new work. The second is that she’s very meticulous—controlling, even—about the words in her script, brooking no deviation by her director or actors.

The verbal precision is understandable, as evidenced onstage at the Vineyard, where this surrealistic, downcast comedy opened last night. Ms. Schwartz’s linguistic dexterity is inspiring and her wordplay inspired; throughout the play, especially its offbeat, morbid romp of a first act, the fast-paced, masterful dialogue and monologues propel the enterprise—and the audience—along. What’s harder to credit, though, is the idea that this play has been so thoroughly workshopped, because it is difficult to imagine what it might have gained from the workshop process. For all the lexicographic virtuosity on display in Somewhere Fun, the play manages to lack any discernible message, point or reason for being.

That a theatergoer is left in a state of befuddled irritation is all the more dismaying because the play would seem to offer so many pleasures. Somewhere Fun, which inasmuch as it is about anything is about a trio of women confronting late middle age and mortality, is blessed with a crackerjack cast. Kathleen Chalfant is wryly imperious as Evelyn Armstrong, elegant and witty even as she’s dying. (“Everything happens for a reason,” she muses. “Except anal cancer.”) Kate Mulgrew’s Rosemary Rappaport is needy, verbose and overwhelming, an amusing torrent of verbiage until the moment she collapses on Madison Avenue and, like the Wicked Witch of the West, melts. Equally excellent are Mary Shultz as Cecelia, Rosemary’s cheerful lapdog of a friend, and Greg Keller as Benjamin, her estranged son. There is characteristically stylish direction by Anne Kauffman, who collaborated with Ms. Schwartz on her previous play, God’s Ear, and specializes in smart stagings of intimate new American dramas, recently among them Amy Herzog’s Belleville, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit and Greg Pierce’s Slowgirl.

And then there’s that language. “It’s wonderful to see you,” Rosemary tells Cecilia at an Upper East Side lunch date, to take one example. “You look the same. Only different. And by different, I mean better. And by better, I mean, not older, but wiser. You look wiser. Especially around the eyes. Have you been squinting? My advice is wear a hat. Have you been, God forbid, laughing?” It’s a carefully constructed cascade at which we laugh, amused and intrigued, even if doing so is bad for our crow’s feet.

This combination carries us nicely through the first act (there are three, with two intermissions), as we meet, first, Evelyn and Rosemary, whose children were playground friends in Central Park “a hundred thousand years ago,” and then Cecilia, whose mother has recently died and who has begun online dating. Each character is a collection of stylized quirks, and it’s fun and compelling to watch them revealed, up to the act-ending moment when Rosemary is liquefied.

The second act begins similarly, as Benjamin arrives to identify the remains. “Is that your mother?” a friendly cop asks him. “That’s a puddle,” he replies. “A puddle of your mother?” “I have no idea.” The cop offers pamphlets; the son is filled with regret.

And so we go on. More oddities, more cascading verbiage. Cecilia inherits Rosemary’s cat, despite her allergies, and goes looking for her online beau. (“Would you like to see his avatar?” she asks a stranger.) We see flashbacks to Evelyn’s daughter, Beatrice (Brooke Bloom), and Benjamin as children. We meet Evelyn’s husband, T (Richard Bekins). Eventually, we see a home movie of Evelyn’s housekeeper’s home. (Maria Elena Ramirez is the pregnant aide, Lolita.) The scenes circle around each other, with characters overlapping and interconnecting, returning to the same riffs, continuing with the wordplay. Somewhat more is revealed, Evelyn gets sicker and eventually dies, and yet it feels like we go nowhere. “This is less charming,” I’d jotted in my notes by the middle of the second act. As the third act transitioned into what feels like a third epilogue, the man behind me groaned.

There’s the rub: Despite its auspicious opening and carefully wrought language, the problem is that Somewhere Fun ultimately simply isn’t. It is, instead, tedious and unrewarding. It needs more workshopping.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, now in revival at the Classic Stage Company, is one of Bertolt Brecht’s masterpieces, a parable, based on a Chinese folk tale, about revolution and justice. In the CSC production, directed by the company’s artistic director, Brian Kulick, the play—and its message—is less the thing than the performances.

The play was first staged in East Germany in 1954 and was originally set in the Soviet Union just after World War II; Mr. Kulick has instead moved the action to sometime around 1990, just after the fall of Communism. In the first act, Tony Straiges’s simply suggestive set is dominated by a statue of Lenin, soon enough shattered; in the second, a giant, graffitied Coca-Cola billboard is added.

In Brecht’s meta-theatrical conception, communal farmers are performing this parable; in Mr. Kulick’s version, it’s a poor traveling troupe trying to find its way in the new society. The story its members tell is the same: the tale of Grusha, a peasant who cares for an abandoned noble baby after a revolution has killed its father and exiled its mother, and how that decent girl—trying to do what’s right—is persecuted by all sides, the revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionaries. It is, in Mr. Kulick’s staging, which includes an original but unthrilling score by Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik that accompanies verse by Auden, a pleasant, simple morality tale, sweet but not stirring.

What stays with you instead is the show’s star, Christopher Lloyd—Reverend Jim, Doc Brown—his face and voice even more aged and worn than you remember. In the first act, he plays the narrating Singer, sometimes with a throaty growl so low-pitched it’s tough to decipher his dialogue; in the second, he’s Azdak, the rascal-turned-judge who dispenses illogical but actually quite fair justice. He’s endlessly watchable, entirely compelling. As is the incomparable Mary Testa, winkingly amusing as the boy’s craven mother. And Elizabeth A. Davis, earnest and sweet as the always-hopeful peasant.

The chalk circle is Azdak’s Solomon-like device for determining which woman will keep the boy: the test is to see which can tug him out of the circle. Grusha wins by losing, giving the play its happy ending. In this staging, The Caucasian Chalk Circle isn’t transformative, but it does make you happy.

The Cast’s the Thing: Jenny Schwartz’s New Play Lacks a Point, but Benefits by Terrific Actors