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A Look at Marriage That Deepens With Each Song : Theater review: 'Company' returns to Broadway with its examination of the pain of commitment--and worse, the pain of no commitment at all.

October 30, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — In the old days, most musicals ended with a marriage and the promise of all-consuming, all-appeasing love. "Company," the landmark 1970 Stephen Sond/ George Furth musical once again on Broadway, centers on marriage, but not as an ideal. Marriage in "Company" is a vastly imperfect and compromised agreement in a vastly imperfect and compromised world.

"Company" is considered a landmark because of its unusual structure and the unusual emotional angle at which it approaches its subject. The whole show takes place in the mind of a single man as he makes a wish while blowing out the candles on a surprise-party birthday cake. That man is Bobby, the 38-year-old "swinging" bachelor (we know he is swinging because it is the '70s and one of the women he dates is a stewardess) who is close companion to five married couples.

Critics of the show have always had a problem with the shallowness of the characters. In the original New York Times review, Clive Barnes described them as the kind of people you go out of your way to avoid at cocktail parties.

But as composer and lyricist, Sondheim insists on examining up close, at a harrowing angle, his in fact rather ordinary characters. And, because of his extraordinary powers of observation, the show, with book by Furth, deepens with every song, until it becomes a dark and moving document on the pain of commitment, and the even worse pain of no commitment at all.

Bobby is now played by Boyd Gaines, whose vocal problems may prevent him from moving with the show from the Roundabout Theatre to the Brooks Atkinson, where the show is scheduled to reopen Dec. 12. It's a shame that his big song, "Being Alive," is hurting his voice, because Gaines is doing a great job acting the song, a cry of desire for something rich and rare that is beyond his reach. "Make me alive," Bobby pleads to some unknown someone. He is not a person who can do it himself.

The actor, who won a Tony for his role as the nice gay doctor in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," has built a theater career on playing affable Jimmy Stewart kind of guys. He bravely goes straight into the heart of Bobby, a man who may be adored by his married friends but who is actually an emotional cripple, a rudderless man who is lost and aging fast.

Just watch Gaines' pained expressions as he is insulted and exposed by his nasty, drunk friend Joanne (Debra Monk). He is eager to smooth everything over, yet his dopey smile reveals the desperation to avoid the truth his friend is speaking. On the surface, "Company" can be seen as a sunny look at the cute, dopey ways people have of coping with commitment. Scratch the surface, and it is a show about fear and self-loathing.

In Scott Ellis' direction, aided and abetted by Rob Marshall's too-cute choreography, the show starts out on a false light note. But song after song, from the rueful "Sorry-Grateful," wonderfully sung by Robert Westenberg, to Bobby's wrenching "Marry Me a Little" (cut from the original), illuminates that nagging sense of impermanence that permeates things we agree to pretend are permanent.

Well-structured by Furth, "Company" is nevertheless a show driven by its songs, many of them designed to be theatrical tours de force. A few actresses hit their songs out of the park. As one of Bobby's casual dates, La Chanze delivers a breathtaking "Another Hundred People," a set-piece song (like "The Miller's Son" from "A Little Night Music"), this one about people arriving hopefully in Manhattan. As the nervous porcelain doll Amy, Veanne Cox is delicate and beautiful and strong while having a nervous breakdown right before her wedding in "Getting Married Today."

Jane Krakowski hits just the right note for April, the none-too-bright stewardess, who sings the wonderful "Barcelona" with Bobby in bed. But the top-dog number goes to Debra Monk's Joanne, a kind of precursor to Mary in "Merrily We Roll Along," an aging, nasty drunk who can barely contain her self-hatred, which is put to brilliant use in the song "The Ladies Who Lunch." In her bride-of-Frankenstein hairdo, Monk demonstrates what a deadly combination are self-hatred, insight, and a couple of vodka stingers.

"Company" is a seemingly pleasant show with a harrowing flip side. Scott Ellis exposes both sides--you can see what you want to see in the show, just as you can in just about any marriage.

* "Company," the Roundabout Theatre, 1530 Broadway at 45th Street. $67.50. (212) 869-8400. Until Dec. 3. Scheduled to reopen at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Dec. 12.

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