'New York Animals': Theater Review

New York Animals - H 2015
Courtesy of T Charles Erickson Photography
The songs are terrific, but you have to wade through a lot of turgid drama to hear them.

Legendary composer Burt Bacharach contributes new songs to this world-premiere play by Steven Sater of 'Spring Awakening' fame.

A Park Avenue matron demanding to know why there are no parsnips in her grocery delivery and a despondent man ordering baked chicken in a diner night after night are but two of the less-than-scintillating plot strands of this new play by Steven Sater (book writer and lyricist of the musical Spring Awakening), featuring songs by legendary composer Burt Bacharach. Depicting the intertwined lives of a cross-section of stressed-out urbanites over the course of a single day, New York Animals is a misstep for the acclaimed off-Broadway company Bedlam.

The troupe — which specializes in stripped-down versions of theatrical and literary classics featuring a handful of actors playing all the roles — applies the same technique to this original work, which has been in development for many years, including a 2010 Los Angeles workshop. The show is performed cabaret-style, with audience members seated at tables and the tiny playing area inhabited by five actors undertaking 21 roles (I'm taking their word for it; it was impossible to keep track). A five-piece band led by musical director/pianist Debra Barsha and featuring lead singer Jo Lampert performs the half-dozen or so songs.

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The company is, in its own words, "committed to the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience," which here manifests in such behavior as the performers sticking microphones in people's faces while wandering among the audience and delivering lines. The results are not so much immersive as reminiscent of interactions with strangers striking up unwanted conversations.

Set for no apparent reason in the mid-1990s, the discursive, episodic storyline covers an array of nearly universally unpleasant figures, including a young mother attempting to fire her Hispanic nanny; a conspiracy-spouting cab driver; a busybody waitress; a thirtysomething woman and gay man lamenting their single status and discussing whether they should have a child together; and others too banal to mention.

Lacking a cohesive theme, other than that life sucks, the dramatic portions seem to go on forever, with the performers playing so many roles it's difficult to keep track of the characters — not that you have any particular desire to.

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Thankfully, the original songs by Bacharach, with lyrics by Sater, provide welcome compensation — even if they have only a vague connection to the dramatic material. Representing the composer's first original work for the theater in nearly a half-century (since Promises, Promises in 1968), the numbers are typically melodic, inventive and instantly recognizable as Bacharach's familiar style (sometimes too familiar, in the case of one song that bears an uncomfortably strong resemblance to "I'll Never Fall in Love Again").

The lyrics are rather less impressive, as demonstrated by such presumed song titles (these are not listed in the program) as "When Does It End?" and "Don't F— With Me." But the numbers for the most part are beautifully sung and skillfully arranged, even if the excessive amplification proves grating. 

The performers, including Eric Tucker, the company's artistic director who also staged this piece, struggle with their mostly one-dimensional roles and are inevitably more effective in some than others. Before the late preview performance began, the audience was informed that the show was still being worked on and that this wouldn't necessarily be the final version. But no matter how much post-opening tinkering is done, New York Animals looks headed for extinction.

Venue: New Ohio Theatre, New York
Cast: Debra Barsha, Ramsey Faragallah, Jo Lampert, Jusannah Millonzi, David Wern, Blanca Camancho, Lena Gabrielle, Edmund Lewis, Eric Tucker, Spiff Wiegand
Director: Eric Tucker
Playwright/lyricist: Steven Sater
Music: Burt Bacharach
Set designer: John McDermott
Costume designer: Niki Delhomme
Lighting designer: Les Dickert
Sound designer: Jeanne Wu
Presented by Bedlam