Here We Are Review. Sondheim the Surrealist

“O, isn’t this wonderful?!” Marianne Brink (Rachel Bay Jones) exclaims upon seeing her old friends at her door. It is the first line in Stephen Sondheim’s first new musical in two decades, produced two years after his death. Long-gestating, long-awaited, “Here We Are” can itself be considered wonderful just for existing, like an unexpected visit from an old friend.

But Marianne’s delight turns to confusion. Her friends are expecting brunch; they say that Marianne and her husband Leo Brink (Bobby Cannavale) invited them. The couple doesn’t remember doing this. Marianne asks the Brink’s Polish maid Eva to scramble some eggs for their sudden guests. Eva (portrayed by the priceless Tracie Bennett  in the first of her vivid characters in the play) replies bluntly: “Madam, nothing is prepared. Cook is off. I have headache. NO!”

So launches the surreal, often comic series of events  in “Here We Are,”  a world-premiere production at The Shed directed by the much-esteemed Joe Mantello and performed by eleven of New York’s most exciting stage actors,  with a book by experienced playwright David Ives inspired by two of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s most acclaimed surrealist films — “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel” — and a score by Sondheim of under a dozen songs marked by his characteristically clever lyrics.

How you react to “Here We Are” greatly depends on what you are expecting. Sondheim’s music has a thrillingly familiar sound – not least, I suspect, because it’s arranged and orchestrated by two of Sondheim’s long-time collaborators, Alexander Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick – but on first listen it seems so seamlessly integrated into Ives’ dialogue that it’s hard to imagine being turned into discrete songs for the bourgeoisie at piano bars like Marie’s Crisis. Ives’ adaptation streamlines Buñuel’s films for the stage and adds its own comic flourishes, but it’s faithful enough to the filmmaker’s opaque, random strangeness that some theatergoers will surely find it a challenge to interpret or even to digest. The cast is starry and game, but this is an ensemble piece, with most of the actors on stage together most of the time, which sometimes sows confusion.

Still, their individual (satiric) characters do shine through.

Leo and Marianne are filthy rich. Marianne (Rachel Bay Jones) is getting her dogs cloned, because she’s tired of “dragging them up to Connecticut, to Switzerland, to Boca. This way we’ll have one set of dogs everywhere…” Leo Brink (Bobby Canavale) is creating a Park for the People, with “a virgin forest imported from Lithuania… All free to the people” which seems a satiric reference to Barry Diller and his Little Island. These are superficial people, unapologetically so. As Marianne sings:

what’s wrong with superficial?
I want things to shine…
Is that so bizarre?
I want things to gleam.
To be what they seem,
And not what they are.

Call me bourgeois…
I don’t need to read between the lines,
The lines are just fine –
 As long as they shine.

 Raffael Santello Di Santicci (Steven Pasquale) is the ambassador from the fictional nation of Moranda, who is having an affair with Claudia (Amber Gray) and dealing in large quantities of cocaine with Claudia’s husband Paul (Jeremy Shamos.) Raffael also tries to woo Marianne, even when Leo is in the same room, although Raffael’s English is not perfect:

Raffael: Marianne, my municipal rose
Marianne: Municipal?
Raffael: Munificent, magnificent. Marianne, I’ve known women before you, but the way I adore you…
Marianne: Please, this is very inconvenient
Raffael: Do I bore you?

Fritz (Micaela Diamond) is Marianne’s  younger sister and a revolutionary member of the People’s Revolutionary Anti-Domination Army – PRADA – going by the code name “Apocalypse.” She is planning to help bring about the end of the world. Fritz sings:

Wake up, it’s the end of the world,
You morons,
Welcome to the end of
Power brokers and hydrofractors
And underpaid teachers and overpaid actors…

Fritz is in cahoots with the revolutionary leader, code name Inferno (portrayed by Denis O’Hare who, like Tracie Bennett, plays several roles, hilariously.)  

But Fritz’s revolutionary ardor cools when she meets a soldier (Jin Ha),  and falls instantly in love with him — and he for her; he sings her a beautiful love song. Eventually he discovers her secret mission, and feels betrayed.

Rounding out the cast are Francois Battiste as Colonel Marin and David Hyde Pierce in the most attention-grabbing role of the Bishop. The Bishop has a shoe festish, and is having a career crisis:

“In the middle of Mass,
All I think is: My miter
Should be tighter.
I mean, why a Bishop?
Why not an anarchist?
Why not a bartender?
 I could be anything!
Why a bishop?!”

Sondheim told interviewers that he came up with the idea for (what’s now called) “Here We Are” because of a remark that director Hal Prince made when the two of them were sharing a cab and looking out the window at all the restaurants that were lit up: “You know what the dominant form of entertainment is? Eating out.”  In Act I,  with the Brinks cupboards bare, Leo urges everybody to go on the road to find a brunch place. More or less following the events of “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” the group tries three places, each one ending in frustration, each one allowing the creative team ample opportunity to make fun of New York dining culture. 

In Café Everything, the first of the three eateries, they’re handed massive book-length black menus and the waiter says “good morning adventurers, I’ll be enabling your table.” Whenever one in the group asks whether a specific meal is available, the waiter replies “We’re not called Everything for nothing.” But in fact they’ve run out of everything. Sings the waiter (again O’Hare):

We do expect a little latte later
But we haven’t got a lotta latte now.

In the most spot-on gag, every time one of the diners asks for water, the waiter says “I will check on that.”

Two more frustrated attempts at brunch lead the group finally to  the Morandan embassy. In Act II, more or less following “The Exterminating Angel,” they find themselves stuck, unable to leave – a situation that recalls some classic existential and absurdist theater going back eighty years.  

I suppose one can see the situation as timely, a parable for our  era. After all, we were stuck in place during the depths of the pandemic. But what was most resonant for me in Act II, although shot through with comedy, was the moment when the characters, thinking they would soon die in the room, contemplated their lives, most of them thinking they had wasted them.

“How much of my life have I wasted on the phone checking the  grosses in Variety,” said Claudia, an agent.

“Try vacuuming cellulite, or moving somebody’s navel so their bikini looks better,” said Paul, a plastic surgeon. 

“I wanted to do something noble,” Raffael said. “I wanted to make a mark in the world. What is my mark? Sex with 4,768 women!”

David Zinn’s minimalist set in Act I may inadvertently encourage theatergoers in the feeling that “Here We Are” is unfinished – that it would have been different, better, if Sondheim were still alive, especially since he was a self-confessed procrastinator with a track record of coming up with his most brilliant work way past deadline (such as, most famously, “A Comedy Tonight” in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the first Broadway musical for which he wrote both music and lyrics, in 1962.) But I prefer to see “Here We Are” in light of a different Sondheim track record. As both biographers and loyal fans know, the public rarely appreciates any of Sondheim’s musicals right away. It takes time to find them wonderful.

Here We Are

The Shed through January 21
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $89 – $349. On TodayTix: Lottery $25, Rush $40
Book by David Ives
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel 
Directed by Joe Mantello
Music supervision and additional arrangements by Alexander Gemignani
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Choreography by Sam Pinkleton
Scenic and costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by Tom Gibbons, hair and make-up design by Robert Pickens and Katie Gell
Francois Battiste as Colonel Marin, Tracie Bennett as woman, Bobby Cannavale as Leo Brink, Micaela Diamond as Fritz, Amber Gray as Claudia Bursik-Zimmer, Jin Ha as soldier, Rachel Bay Jones as Marianne Brink, Denis O’Hare as man, Steven Pasquale as Raffael Santello Di Santicci, David Hyde Pierce as Bishop, and Jeremy Shamos as Paul Zimmer. The understudies for Here We Are are Adante Carter, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Bradley Dean, Mehry Eslaminia, Adam Harrington, and Bligh Voth.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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