Domestic Affairs: In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s Memoir Is Brought to Vivid Life on the Stage

David Adjmi gives us a modern 'Marie Antoinette,' and 'The Winslow Boy' is reliably starchy

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in 'Fun Home.' (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris in ‘Fun Home.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

“Caption,” announces Alison Bechdel, the character, near the end of the first scene in Fun Home. “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.” Fun Home, the excellent new musical that opened at the Public Theater last night, is about how they both ended up where they did.

Alison Bechdel, the lesbian cartoonist, published Fun Home, the graphic memoir, to wide acclaim in 2006. The playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori adapted it for the stage. The musical, enlivened with Ms. Tesori’s sweet, melodic score, and the director Sam Gold’s impressionistic staging, is about Alison, the person and the character, trying to understand herself and, more importantly, her father. It is lovely—not perfect, but deeply affecting, even heartbreaking.

Alison grew up a tomboy. Her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris, charming and opaque), was the high-school English teacher, and he also helped run the family funeral business. (The funeral home was known within the family as the “fun home.”) He was brilliant, high-spirited, devoted to literature and to his daughter. Alison came out during her freshman year at Oberlin; four months after she told her parents—after she’d learned of her father’s history of secret seductions and affairs—he stepped in front of a truck.

The frame for retelling all this is Alison, the cartoonist, trying to figure out how to render her life and her father in graphic form. (Hence the “Caption:” construction in many spoken lines.) But within that, it is also her attempt to assemble a mess of memories into a story, and as such it bounces around among different times and locations. In Ms. Tesori’s script and Mr. Gold’s direction, that nonlinearity works beautifully. With scenes staged as overlapping vignettes, arrayed across a rotating stage, we dip in and out of fragments, as in real memory.

This requires three different Alisons, at three different ages: An adult, narrator Alison (Beth Malone), who frames the story as the cartoonist trying to figure out how to tell her own story; a Medium Alison (Alexandra Socha), the young woman who finds her sexuality and watches her own self-discovery push her father to self-destruction; and Small Alison (a very impressive Sydney Lucas), a young girl with a loving father and a distaste for dresses. Judy Kuhn plays Helen, Bruce’s wife, who knows his secrets and is the one to tell Alison of them. Alison’s brothers, Christian (Griffin Birney) and John (Noah Hinsdale), are mostly insignificant presences, there in her early memories and invisible later on. Joan (Roberta Colindrez) is the object of Alison’s collegiate affections, and Joel Perez plays a series of yard boys-slash-students-slash-Bruce’s love interests.

Alison never really gets a handle on her father, and, accordingly, neither does the audience. He remains inscrutable, though we do see, indirectly, how this man in an insular small town in a different, earlier time tries, and fails, at balancing who he is with who he should be. He is forever fixing up homes—for years the family’s, later a dilapidated one just outside town—and no doubt this is his attempt to fix up himself, and his family.

But there is tremendous emotional richness surrounding the cipher that is Bruce. The first great number in Fun Home is “Come to the Fun Home,” an invented TV commercial for the funeral business sung by the Bechdel kids in the style of the Jackson 5. It’s wildly entertaining, but it serves the deeper purpose of emphasizing how happy the family could be, in those early days, even in its weird circumstances. Later, in “Changing My Major” (“to sex with Joan,” the lyric continues), Medium Alison sings of her first sexual experience, her first gay love, and it is a beautiful song, recognizable I’d imagine to everyone but certainly to those who at some point came out themselves, a release and recognition of feelings and emotions long present but unspoken. Finally, “Days,” in which Helen sings of her life married to this increasingly distant man, is, especially as sung by Ms. Kuhn, simply devastating.

There’s a final coda, in which Alison returns to memories of her happy youth, that I found unnecessary. Helen, other than that one great song, is largely, and inexplicably, absent from her daughter’s story. (She’s the major character in Bechdel’s second memoir, I understand, but that doesn’t help this one.) And the older-Alison framing device frequently feels unnecessary, an unneeded and occasionally clunky layer of remove from the story itself.

But these are small problems. Ms. Bechdel wrote a sincere, searching memoir, and Mses. Kron and Tesori have turned it into a moving musical. Bruce Bechdel’s life was a tragedy; Fun Home is a triumph.

It’s not easy being queen.

Such is the lesson of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, a funny, talky, sympathetic telling of the doomed French ruler’s final years, which opened at the Soho Rep Sunday night.

Mr. Adjmi’s script, which hews more or less to the historical record while presenting Marie as a naive Valley Girl trapped in a loveless marriage to an indecisive nincompoop, is a sharp reconsideration of the French Revolution from Marie’s perspective. It’s intriguing and compelling and not quite revelatory—there’s not much here we don’t already know—but it’s made bracingly fresh by Rebecca Taichman’s spare, severe, high-intensity staging. The Soho Rep’s short, wide stage has only a white upstage wall as backdrop, with the queen’s name etched into it in towering letters. There is virtually no scenery, and Marie wears a single, bright red, strapless gown—until she wears only a stained, shapeless sack. For this modern Marie, opulence is stripped down from rococo to minimalist.

This modern Marie also has the great good fortune to be played by Marin Ireland, who brings her own mix of steel and fragility, and who offers a collection of tics and mannerisms, that makes this caricatured queen a recognizable person. Ms. Ireland is chattily funny as a spoiled, entitled Marie, rightly exasperated and strong as the wife of a buffoon, and genuinely scared and angry as a political prisoner. She makes the show (even if David Greenspan, as a talking, wise Le Hameau sheep, occasionally steals it).

The Winslow Boy, Terence Rattigan’s 1947 period drama about family, duty and honor in Edwardian London, is a near-perfect revival for the latter-day, haute-bourgeois Roundabout Theatre Company. Presented in a characteristic high-gloss staging by the nonprofit producing powerhouse—sumptuous set, big-name playwright, biggish-name cast—it is a well-made production of a well-made play that acquits itself admirably without ever risking excitement.

Directed by Lindsay Posner with stiff-upper-lip propriety and a hint of comic flair, the production that opened last week at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre originated at the Old Vic. It stars Roger Rees as Arthur Winslow, the starchy paterfamilias who battles on and on for the sake of honor—how very British!—and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as his wife, Grace, whose name telegraphs the manner with which she accepts her husband’s increasingly irrelevant crusade. Both manage to give excellent, detailed performances despite their firmly archetypical roles.

Young Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) has been sent home from a prestigious navy-run prep school, expelled for stealing. The boy insists he hasn’t done so, and his father is determined to clear the family name. So begins the slow process of the respectable family’s increased impoverishment—the older son, Dickie (Zachary Booth), must drop out of college; the suffragette daughter, Catherine (Charlotte Parry), loses her fiancé—to pay for a top-drawer attorney, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola), who continues the fight almost no one, least of all Ronnie Winslow, much cares about.

The Winslows do win in the end, but to little practical effect and at a cost that would seem far too great to all but the honor-obsessed. What the play knows, and Arthur Winslow starts to realize, is that times are changing—the war is coming and then women’s rights and those other aspects of modernity so bothersome on Downton Abbey—and that old rules will soon be forgotten. Except, of course, at the Roundabout, where the sun never sets on old-fashioned comfort.

Domestic Affairs: In <em>Fun Home</em>, Alison Bechdel’s Memoir Is Brought to Vivid Life on the Stage