Marie Christine By Michael John LaChiusa
A great play, by contrast, is one whose cheating is earned, relevant to the action and necessary to the play's eloquence?as when Euripides' child-murderer Medea (conceived in 431 BC) escapes the scene of her crimes in a dragon-drawn chariot, offering not only a marvelous spectacle in itself but also a stunning reminder of how much larger and more unfathomable she is as a moral phenomenon than the mortals around her have comprehended. This is the sort of thing Aristotle had in mind when he said sagely that, in drama, "one should choose events that are impossible but plausible in preference to ones that are possible but implausible." Imagine the loss of scale had Medea gotten away by, say, bribing her guards, or slipping through a hitherto unmentioned tunnel beneath her house.
Marie Christine, Michael John LaChiusa's musical version of Medea set in the antebellum Creole society of 1890s New Orleans, certainly has the blush of popularity about it. Its music is moving, excitingly propulsive and complexly varied (with Caribbean rhythms side by side with ragtime, tuneful r&b, dissonant Weill-like ballads and much more)?by far the strongest and most original new score in the past several Broadway seasons. The show's premodern story follows the outline of the ancient legend with minimal contrivance. And the lead actress, Audra McDonald, a force of nature apparently incapable of uttering a sound that isn't richly musical, pulls it all together with her luminous presence and glittering voice.
In the end, though, Marie Christine is really a study in cleverly veiled cheating. It's enjoyable partly because it is mired in the "possible but implausible," which prevents it from rising to any truly transcendent or harrowing level of experience. The title character, for instance, is a vodoun "healer" displaced to Chicago (Medea was a barbarian sorceress displaced to Greece), but all her vodoun posturing remains on the level of ribbon-waving mumbo jumbo, threats and incantations grounded in fully explicable psychological suggestion. This supposedly "dark" religious tradition, in other words, remains unmysterious and unmagical, with the result that Marie is never really frightening or monstrous. She is a likable, human-scale character who, distracted by jealousy or not, simply would never do to her children what the plot says she does.
LaChiusa's prodigious composing talents notwithstanding, he'd have been wise to collaborate with a real writer on this project, someone capable of inventing at least a powerful speech or two to make Marie seem compellingly strange and foreign beyond readily explicable frames of schematic social-politics. The proud, mixed-race Marie?betrayed by her white lover Dante Keyes (Anthony Crivello) when he needs to get respectable in order to run for city office?is diminished by her violent act of revenge. She chooses it petulantly over several perfectly acceptable alternatives, which reduces her to mundane criminality. (The whole show is a flashback from prison, where she has been sentenced to die the next morning.) Interestingly, in an article in the house magazine Lincoln Center Theater Review, the inmate-celebrity Wilbert Rideau, a perceptive journalist and filmmaker, hinted at some of these problems between the lines of his praise for LaChiusa's work: "In real life, you would not likely find a Marie Christine among the nation's murderers. Her peculiar pathology could exist only in a fable... Unfortunately, Marie Christine is ultimately about destructive relationships."
What Rideau cannot have seen, however?unless he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary to see a performance, which I doubt?is how LaChiusa, McDonald and the director Graciela Daniele were able to make all the compromises seem trivial for two and a half hours. The surging production, with its pounding rhythms (and slightly pandering mania) of an African drummer perched on a sky-high platform, its rush of black-clad choral prisoners swirling around the confessing Marie, whose singing voice could cure anyone's despair?all this and more pulled the audience along with card-sharp efficiency on the play's modest emotional journey. Only later, in the fullness of afterthought, did the deficiencies of scale and plausibility seem important.
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. (B'way), 239-6200, through Jan. 9.
Amadeus By Peter Shaffer
Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, on the other hand, is a famously popular play that cannot sustain its clever cheating until its final curtain. It begins with several good, serious ideas speculating about the death of Mozart and the homicidal envy of his lesser rival Antonio Salieri. But even in this slick production directed by Peter Hall (who also directed the original London and Broadway productions in 1979 and 1980), its nearly three-hour length seems about twice what the drama requires.
Unlike the 1984 film directed by Milos Forman, the play Amadeus focuses on Salieri and his need to confess to the audience (which presumably shares his mediocrity, as underlined by the huge upstage mirror in Hall's production). The film's dominant portrayal of Mozart as a boorish, obscene child is also a major part of the play, but the thrust is on Salieri's need to explain his hostility toward Mozart in many more words than the screenplay (also by Shaffer) could tolerate. Salieri's quarrel, as he explains in a long monologue at the end of Act 1, is really with God, who made him competent but unexceptional despite his hard work, and chose "spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantile Mozart!?who has never worked one minute to help another man" as "his preferred Creature."
This is an interesting dispute that raises fascinating questions about society's glorification of mediocrity and the moral neutrality of genius. The problem is that, as a dramatic knot, it's inert, because one of the major parties to the conflict, God, has nothing to say in response, and because Shaffer (like LaChiusa) demonstrates unequivocally, early on, that he isn't up to the task of painting a truly larger-than-life figure. (Mozart's silly infantilisms get old very fast.) Shaffer asks good questions but then leaves himself nothing to do in his second act but plod grimly through a catalog of Salieri's carefully concealed cruelties and thwartings of Mozart, all of which demonstrate precisely the same point about God's indifference to the sort of worldly recognition he enjoys at Mozart's expense.
In the end, Shaffer patches together a complex-seeming conclusion by tossing together old and new loose ends, but it won't wash. There's a trite reunion of Mozart with his shallowly drawn wife, for instance, and a botched suicide attempt by Salieri, after which he suddenly and inexplicably anoints himself as holy confessor: "Mediocrities everywhere?now and to come?I absolve you all." Both playwright and character seem to think Salieri has become an immortal creation at this point, and his snickering claim to have rescued himself from historical oblivion by whispering his name as Mozart's assassin reflects unflatteringly on Shaffer as a pathetic, last-ditch appeal to cheap notoriety.
Still, for the pleasures of this play's deft cheating in its first act we should nevertheless be grateful?particularly since its swift and sumptuous establishment of the 18th-century Viennese court constitutes high historical ambition compared to everything else currently on Broadway, and since Salieri's self-consciously "scandalous" need to confess provides clever sugarcoating for some important ideas about art and morality and the value of complexity in entertainment. The tricks of the play are indeed amusing for an hour or so: the convention of hearing Mozart's music over loudspeakers while he or others read his manuscripts, for instance, and the artificial suspense (which no one believes, including Salieri) created by dozens of whispering offstage voices. David Suchet is a surprisingly amiable Salieri, generating sympathy for his character through what seems, strangely enough, to be genuine affection for Mozart's music. And Michael Sheen is impressive as Mozart, inasmuch as consistent childishness and sweaty, anxious exertions can substitute for the depths Shaffer couldn't fathom. Neither actor can rewrite the play, alas, which leaves both of their characters huffing and puffing on a dubious treadmill.
Music Box Theater, 239 W. 45th St. (B'way & 8th Ave.), 239-6200, through May 28.