The Human Comedy
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
May 6, 2011
In Hair, Galt MacDermot wrote songs that expressed a generation’s disillusionment and rage at war and America. Racism, capitalism, and the hell of Vietnam were all grist for the mill in Hair, still one of the most influential and successful rock musicals to emerge from Broadway. In The Human Comedy, MacDermot, with librettist William Dumaresq, turned to material that was a polar opposite—William Saroyan’s sentimental and unapologetically patriotic tale of small town life in Ithaca, California during World War II. A failure on Broadway in the early eighties, The Human Comedy is now being revived by the smart and resourceful Astoria Performing Arts Center in western Queens. While not quite making the case for Comedy as a forgotten masterpiece, APAC’s charming production shows a work that does not deserve the obscurity to which it’s been relegated.
The evening is nearly plotless. Homer Macauley (Aaron J. Libby), a teenaged boy in Ithaca, California, gets a job as a telegram delivery boy. He lives with his mother (Victoria Bundonis), his sister Bess (Deidre Haren), his kid brother Ulysses (the ridiculously adorable Anthony Pierini), and his brother Marcus (Stephen Trafton), soon to go to war. His father has been killed in the conflict. There’s an assortment of gently Saroyanesque characters—the tippling telegraph operator, flirty, breathless teenage girls, the stoic mother hiding her grief from her children. It’s a coming of age story, in miniature.
Human Comedy has its flaws. One of the creators’ stranger interpolations is a character named Beautiful Music, who occasionally drifts through the action, singing soul-inflected numbers and functioning as a Death figure. Saroyan’s unrelentingly sunny world view can grate—in a scene of a robbery in the telegraph office, it takes little time for the manager to talk the man out of his robbery and his gun. Deaths are telegraphed with all the subtlety of one of Ulysses’s oncoming trains. But it’s a theatergoer with a heart of ice who’s unmoved by Human Comedy’s messy heart. And with recent world events, Saroyan’s flag-waving doesn’t feel quite so far away.
Tom Wojtunik’s direction is lively, clean, and heartfelt. He takes work as it is and never stoops to postmodern commenting on a world that could seem naïve and sheltered to us now. Jeffrey Campos’s excellent musical direction deserves mention, especially for the fine choral work. It also shows off the forgotten gems of MacDermot’s score: a simple tune between Ulysses and the trainman that frames the acts, the girl-group “I Let Him Kiss Me Once,” the soldier Tobey’s gentle hymns. The ensemble is rock solid and in some cases (Jonathan Gregg’s telegraph manager, Rayna Hickman's lovelorn rich girl, D. William Hughes’s Tobey) exceptional. And Michael P. Kramer’s set design is just terrific—rows of solid, mismatched chairs, lots of sturdy wood and telegraph lines stretching into the distance. In the center and most prominent spot on the stage is the Service Flag—the official banner of families with members serving in the Armed Forces during periods of conflict. Giving this image such prominence is fitting, since the characters spend their lives waiting for loved ones to return, maybe never.