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The husband-and-wife songwriting/performing team Shaun and Abigail Bengson seem like very nice people. But should you happen to meet them, you might want to think twice before asking any personal questions, because they may wind up boring you to death telling you how happy they are and how much they love each other.
You’ll have no need to make such inquiries if you see Hundred Days, the new concert musical written by the Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, currently being performed at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, the launching pad for such musicals as Rent, Once and the recent Hadestown, which is rumored to be mulling a Broadway move. This song cycle delivers the story of the Bengsons‘ whirlwind courtship and subsequent relationship in intimate detail, and despite its rollicking indie rock- and folk-flavored score, it feels entirely like TMI.
“We’re a family band,” the couple announces at the show’s beginning, taking pains to assure us that they mean they’re married and not brother and sister. Abigail cuts a striking figure in her spangly dress, which she has the disconcerting habit of hiking up above her knees, while the bespectacled Shaun, who confesses to being shy, looks like he’d be happy to blend into the woodwork. At least, until he starts singing and playing guitar, at which point he becomes infinitely more charismatic.
Through words and songs, many songs, The Bengsons (that’s how they’re billed in the program) relate the story of how they met, fell instantly in love and got married three weeks later. They sheepishly admit that such a rash act might have been a horrible idea, but as their show proves, it seems to have worked out just fine. For them, at least. There was collateral damage. Abigail had to deliver the news of her new relationship to her then-fiancé, while Shaun’s best friend Max, who at the time was driving cross-country to move in with his bud, found himself looking for somewhere else to call home.
Accompanied by a talented four-piece band whose members occasionally join in on vocals and narration, the couple alternate between songs and storytelling as they recount the anxieties that threatened their relationship. For Abigail, it was a trauma related to a childhood dream that she would marry the man of her dreams, who would then die at the 100-day mark. For Shaun, it was the rather more prosaic fear that the woman he loved would leave him.
In either case, the problem seems more suited for extensive therapy than artistic expression. There’s little dramatic tension derived from watching the couple making moony eyes at each other, and their profuse declarations of love become more than a little grating. You wind up feeling thankful they didn’t share their honeymoon photos. Before the final number, they reenact a supposed conversation they had early in the relationship in which they talk about what they want for their respective futures. It comes across with all the profundity of a fortune cookie.
All this is a shame, because their music proves consistently tuneful and engaging, even if the amplification often prevents the lyrics, so important to the storyline, from being fully understood. Shaun is clearly a talented musician and Abigail a powerful singer, even if she does occasionally overindulge in the sort of bluesy caterwauling that even Janis Joplin would find over the top. Although the show is little more than a glorified concert, director Anne Kaufman has provided some nice theatrical touches, such as illuminated sand falling gently from the ceiling during a number about the passage of time. The set design by Kris Stone and Andrew Hungerford, featuring dozens of hanging bulbs, enhances the visual effect.
It’s wonderful for them that the Bengsons have overcome their personal issues and forged a strong marriage. But it’s not hard to imagine how much more interesting it would have been to hear from Abigail’s ex-fiancé and Shaun’s former friend Max. Now that might have provided some drama.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Colette Alexander, Abigail Bengson, Shaun Bengson, Jo Lampert, Dani Markham, Reggie D. White
Director: Anne Kaufman
Book: The Bengsons, Sarah Gancher
Music and lyrics: The Bengsons
Set designers: Kris Stone, Andrew Hungerford
Lighting designer: Andrew Hungerford
Costume designer: Sydney Gallas
Sound designer: Nicholas Pope
Movement director: Sonya Tayeh
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop
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