“Embarrassments,” the Wilma Theater’s first-ever commissioned musical, is an ambitious production set up by a venue that, for better or for worse, knows its audience.
On the show’s opening night, Wilma chairman Jeff Harbison addressed the audience with a quote by Henry James regarding the beauty of economy in theater. He didn’t know the weight of his words.
“Embarrassments” is indeed an exercise in the Wilma’s emotional and external economy. The sets are dark, peppered with bland furniture and warm but shallow lighting. The music is lacking and the dialogue efficient, but devoid of the magic an audience expects.
The show recounts author Henry James’ debut as a playwright with his brainchild, Guy Domville (not the stuff Disney musicals are made of), as well as depicts the gray and mechanical geographical settings of London and fictional New York. Still, there’s a sense of starkness about the entire production.
The acting is superb. These are professionals. Actors Mary Martello (Sally, Mrs. Loder, Arnold Bennett, Aunt Letty) and Michael X. Martin (George Alexander, Loder, George Bernard Shaw) are brilliant and seamless, floating between characters and accents and even genders.
Henry Stram’s portrayal of Henry James is as magnificent as it is self-indulgent. The young Jennifer Lyon’s Violet Gray, the romantic lead, radiates with old-school poise and a pseudo-pop voice. Ann Morrison (Mrs. Alsager) steals the show by perfectly embodying the muted goddess to an adoring playwright.
Unfortunately, there’s an emotional hole in Laurence Klavan’s book and a gaping void in Polly Penn’s music and lyrics.
The soul of the show, the music, is nothing more than a reiteration of the artistic banter that the audience wants to cut through to expose purpose in the prose.
Henry James is portrayed as an egotistical novelist dabbling in theater who, on the eve of his play’s opening night, is so wracked with insecurity he is inspired to write a “short story” from which he resolves to create another play should his first fail.
The consequential play-within-a-play charts the journey of young playwright Alan Wayworth (portrayed enthusiastically by James Sugg) through the creation, production and debut of his work “Nona Vincent,” inspired by his own tragic heroine Mrs. Alsager.
At best, the production boasts bone-dry humor only religious theatergoers could love. The biggest laughs came from the superficial divas, the Seinfeldian musings on torturous audience etiquette and the pride and petulance of a writer knowing his greatness before anyone has the chance to concur.
The music could prove unforgettable for one reason: its obvious and odd use of operatives as song titles. Numbers like “Using,” have the poor actors jerking back and forth like a student driver between verse and refrain, praying that the audience will bite down on a program and wait for more dialogue.
But don’t chalk “Embarrassments” up to an…embarrassment. The Wilma went bold for its first commissioned musical but didn’t go broad. It seemed to celebrate the art in elitism and discard the power in raw emotion.
Henry James was a stickler for inner turmoil and, according to Klavan, “understanding of the cruelty that people do to each other without laying a hand on anyone.”
Perhaps the Wilma should have staged this understanding, not adopted it. In theater, economy can be beautiful and still fall victim to recession.
Matt Donnelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org