'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice': Theater Review

Monique Carboni
From left: Michael Zegen, Jennifer Damiano, Joél Pérez and Ana Nogueira in 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice'
Swinging has never seemed so boring.
3/22/2020

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega appears in the world premiere of this musical adaptation of the 1969 Paul Mazursky film, featuring songs by Duncan Sheik.

Paul Mazursky's 1969 film comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a witty social satire about the sexual revolution and the confusion it engendered among a generation, was perfect for its era. Now there's a new musical adaptation, receiving its off-Broadway world premiere with The New Group and staged by the company's artistic director, Scott Elliott. Expectations ran high, thanks both to the well-known source material and the talent involved, including composer Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman (Sophistry, Things We Want), co-lyricist Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody, High Fidelity) and, in a late addition to the cast, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega.

Unfortunately, the show has arrived about a half-century too late.

The creatives don't seem to have had any particular viewpoint toward the musical's inspiration, other than to slavishly replicate it. The show re-creates the hugely successful movie to a T, retaining its narrative structure nearly scene for scene and featuring much of the original dialogue from the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Mazursky and Larry Tucker. That approach might have worked well enough when the film was still fresh and timely, but it's now a dated period piece which many audience members either won't have seen or will recall only in fuzzy memories. The show feels like nostalgia half-removed, resembling those recent live television re-creations of classic sitcoms such as All in the Family and The Jeffersons.

The story, revolving around the titular quartet of two married couples, begins with documentary filmmaker Bob (Joél Pérez, Fun Home) and his wife Carol (Jennifer Damiano, Next to Normal) experiencing a consciousness-raising, clothes-dropping weekend at "The Institute at Big Sur" (clearly modeled after Esalen). The experience prompts Bob to have a casual affair with a much younger woman during a business trip, to which the newly liberated Carol responds with blithe acceptance. But when she reciprocates by sleeping with a hunky tennis instructor, Bob finds himself struggling to overcome his jealousy, though he ultimately comes to terms with the new paradigm.

The couple's more straitlaced best friends Ted (Michael Zegen, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) look on in horror at the licentious goings-on. But when Alice finds out Ted also had a fling while on a trip to Miami, she demands that the four of them get into bed together for an "orgy" that produces unexpected results.

Although the film has become dated in many respects, it nonetheless still proves highly entertaining thanks to the amusing dialogue and the outstanding performances by its leads Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon (the last two received Oscar nominations). But the material doesn't work at all in this adaptation. The clever banter, delivered so naturally onscreen, falls flat onstage. The plot's contrivances are more glaring, and the pacing of the nearly two-hour intermissionless proceedings feels glacial.

It's probably unfair to compare the stage performers with the original stars, but in this case it seems necessary. The four leads display little chemistry, either comic or sexual, and despite the ample display of well-toned bodies (the only nudity is of the male rear variety), there's little to no actual heat. All of them have their moments, with Zegen perhaps scoring the most laughs, but charm is in sadly short supply.

Vega, credited in the program as "Band Leader," a role Sheik initially had intended to play himself, adds some star power by narrating the story, providing the voices for a few unseen characters and singing lead on most of the songs. But she seems awkward onstage, sometimes reading from the script, and her extraneous presence proves distracting; you keep hoping she'll break out into "Luka" or "Tom's Diner."

Those hits would certainly be preferable to Sheik's music, which contains a few pretty melodies but feels wan and underpowered. The score at times sounds like Burt Bacharach pastiche (the composer's "What the World Needs Now" played during the movie's memorable final scene) but feels largely unnecessary, and bland lyrics co-written with Green lack the necessary wit, although you have to hand it to them for rhyming "hideous" with "chlamydious." The songs, delivered directly to the audience, mainly come across like aural window dressing.   

Incidentally, those averse to audience participation would be wise to avoid the front row (the audience sits on three sides of the stage), since you're likely to be brought onstage to interact with the performers in scenes involving group therapy and the like (but not, unfortunately for thrill seekers, group sex). 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice succeeds in evoking the era in which it's set, from the amusing props (a copy of the late-'60s self-help book I'm OK — You're OK receives prominent placement) to Jeff Mahshie's costumes, which unfairly look awful on the men and fabulous on the women. But without any fresh perspective on either its source material or the age of sexual liberation in general, the whole enterprise seems sadly pointless.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Jennifer Damiano, Jamie Mohamdein, Ana Nogueira,
Joél Pérez, Suzanna Vega, Michael Zegen
Book: Jonathan Marc Sherman, based on the Paul Mazursky film
Music: Duncan Sheik
Lyrics: Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green
Director: Scott Elliott
Musical staging: Kelly Devine
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Jessica Pazz
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Presented by The New Group