Far From Heaven

Recently, I decided that I would be supporting the mayoral candidate who promised to impose a five-year ban on Broadway musicals based on movies.

Nobody in the crowded field of hopefuls has yet taken me up on the offer--- though I hold out hope for Anthony Weiner, who could probably benefit from a new idea associated with his name--- and in any case, the ban wouldn't technically apply to Far From Heaven, which for now is playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Certainly, this latest Hollywood import does not display any of the embarrassing, charmless incompetence that's depressingly common to this peculiar sub-genre. In fact, there's plenty to admire about it, from a virtuosic cast led by Kelli O'Hara, to a pleasant score by Scott Frankel. But if Far From Heaven doesn't join the gloomy ranks of Ghost or High Fidelity, it does seem to affirm a long-standing suspicion: whatever movies do that makes them work, they do it better than musicals.

The movie in question here, Todd Haynes's critically acclaimed art-house gem from 2002, earned Julianne Moore an Oscar nomination for the role of Cathy Whitaker, a suburban Connecticut homemaker in 1957 whose life parallels the larger societal changes of her era. One night, Cathy wraps up a home-cooked dinner and heads down to the office of her overworked husband, Frank, where she discovers him passionately making out with another man. Shocked by this unthinkable act, Cathy implores Frank to undergo some form of "conversion therapy," an indignity to which he reluctantly agrees. His heart is never really in it, though, and Frank soon turns to alcohol, which leads to increased aggression toward, and alienation from, his sensitive wife.

But there's another thing, and actually, it's the crux of this story. Cathy, see, has started to confide in her new gardener, Raymond, an intelligent and handsome man who also happens to be black. The blossoming "friendship" of Raymond and Cathy, perhaps even more unthinkable (and certainly less concealable) than a same-sex affair, creates a fracas in their respective communities, even among Cathy's closest friends.

Richard Greenberg's libretto is markedly faithful to the film, which Haynes also wrote himself. The plot machinations all add up, and several of the screenplay's most memorable lines have been set, verbatim, to fateful music. Though Michael Korie's lyrics were a tad busy and bland for my taste, Frankel's appealing score navigates emotions with ease, and the structure of the piece is impressively tidy, thanks partly to the director, Michael Greif.

The movie, though, took its power primarily from the atmosphere. Every leaf, every car, every haircut, was calibrated to capture the mind's image of this acute historical moment, just before the real collision of values and identities that would define the following decade. You simply can't do that on stage, at least not in the same way, and so except for a few leaves that drop from the ceiling at opportune moments, what we're left with is the story itself. And that, ultimately, is what makes Far From Heaven a less-than-satisfying work of full-blooded theatricality.

While Cathy and Raymond's story is undeniably compelling, at least theoretically, I began to wonder whether their deck is stacked a little too thickly. Does Raymond really have to be a perfect father, gardener, and interpreter of abstract art--- and always the most reasonable one in the room? As a social symbol, this African-American paragon of virtue hits all the right notes. But it drains any real tension from his dalliance with the equally pristine Cathy. In our era, of course, we know it's wrong that people thought such things were wrong. "Far From Heaven" doesn't have much to say beyond that, and with such uncommonly unflawed humans at its center, there's a wave of self-satisfaction to its theme that denies us the opportunity for real catharsis. As the slow-dancing couple traded lyrical cliches about how the world doesn't understand them ("Given my druthers / I'd get on with others / But others keep drawing a line"), I yearned for more scenes with the brooding and enigmatic Frank, whose forays into the seedy, underground world of 1950's gay life happen entirely offstage.

O'Hara gives a lovely, understated performance as Cathy, drenched in her usual bright vocals. Steven Pasquale is a triumph as Frank, and Isaiah Johnson gamely makes the most out of his turn as Raymond. Jake Lucas and Juliana Rigoglioso, both well before their teenage years, show remarkable intelligence and durability as Frank and Cathy's children. Among Cathy's busybody neighbors, Nancy Anderson stands out as Eleanor, her supposed best friend.

The show's musical highlight is a solemn eleven-o'clock ballad called "Tuesdays, Thursdays," in which Cathy takes stock of all the changes in her life with increasing fury, while on a phone call with her husband. The precision of the lyrics is perfectly matched with the rising discord of the music, and O'Hara delivers it ably. But it's memorable most of all because of the way it freezes time to sketch an emotional map of Cathy's inner thoughts, outside the immediate context of the story. In other words, unlike too much of Far From Heaven, it's a moment that could only happen in a musical.