“Stereophonic” chronicles a year of recording studio sessions by the members of a popular 1970s rock band (never named, fictional) as they put together their latest album and have their ups and downs with one another. Watching this play by David Adjmi made me think of the last (and possibly the only other) play I’ve seen that was set in a recording studio, “Million Dollar Quartet,” not because there were any similarities between the two, but precisely because their differences made me realize how I could be impressed by the writing and acting in “Stereophonic” and still be disappointed by it.
At three hours long (plus intermission), “Stereophonic” feels as if it’s in Annie Baker territory – which is to say, long and slow but meticulously observed from real life, unfolding as if in real time, but also offering a subtle wit and the possibility of deeper meaning. But does that sound like the right approach for a play about ROCK N ROLL?! Sure, there is an original rock score by the Grammy-winning musician Will Butler, formerly of Arcade Fire, but I counted only a half dozen songs, and, in keeping with the naturalistic approach, they were presented as if the band was figuring them out — therefore largely in snippets and stops and starts, the band spending more time listening to the raw recordings of their music than playing it.
By contrast, “Million Dollar Quartet,” a jukebox musical on Broadway about the famed 1956 Sun Records studio session, featured some two dozen hits in 100 minutes (no intermission) performed by actors portraying Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lewis and Carl Perkins.
If I’m going to be watching a show that takes place entirely in a recording studio, I think my preference is clear.
Still, under the direction of Daniel Aukin, “Stereophonic” offers several pleasures, chief among them a showcase for its seven-member cast, who divide up into couples.
Tom Pecinka and Sarah Pidgeon portray Peter and Diana, the lead guitarist and lead vocalist, and apparently the founders of the group, who have been together as a couple for nine years. He wants to marry her and father a child. . She feels he tries to control her. Their arguments are memorable, not for any flashiness, but for the humor and pathos that comes from the verisimilitude of their relationship. In one of them, she says that there are things she has avoided telling him about.
“Okay,” he replies, not wanting to hear it, but not wanting to admit that.
“…like when you sold my guitar.”
“That was seven years ago.”
“The guitar that took me months and months to save for. “
“The guitar you used literally once…”
“I would have learned the electric guitar, okay? And you were right, I wasn’t practicing enough. I wasn’t doing all the things you told me to do
I was working at that stupid old folks home and changing people’s diapers so we could make rent. But I was still planning on…and I was never gonna be Keith Richards
I was never gonna be Jimmy Page but I was still planning on learning it
to give myself some kind of —of, of literacy! And then suddenly my guitar is gone. And then I’m being forced again and now I’m playing this fucking triangle and I’m on stage
doing this with my hands because I have nothing to do with my hands.
Will Brill and Juliana Canfield portray Holly, the keyboard player, and Reg, the bass guitarist. They are a married couple, far more volatile than Peter and Diana. We first see them when he’s drunk and she coldly ignores him; their relationship goes wildly up and down, and back and forth from there.
It occurred to me that either of these relationships are potentially engaging enough to be the focus of their own plays.
Eli Gelb and Andrew R. Butler portray the sound engineer Grover and his assistant Charlie, who have an amusing odd couple dynamic. Grover lied about his experience in order to get the job, and is anxious about the gig and resentful of some members of the band (“I just want to get my Grammy and never see his face again,” he says after a blow-up with Peter.) while the younger Charlie is more level-headed and connected; he got his first gig with the Doobie Brothers, because he’s cousins with Tom Johnston.
“You’re cousins with the main Doobie Brother?”
“You’re a Doobie Cousin?”
“We grew up together, yeah.”
“… God man you’re lucky, no one helped me.”
Chris Stack plays Simon, the remaining band member. He is the drummer, and in a couple too, but with his unseen wife, back home in England, whom he hasn’t seen for three years – a source of frustration, since this gig was only supposed to last for six months.
David Zinn’s set design splits the stage into the control room downstage and the sound room, both realistic looking. In keeping with that realism, there are scenes where the bandmates are figuring out a song in the sound room, which vaguely indicate the way the musicians work with one another, but don’t in any tangible way enlighten the audience. At one point, Holly at the keyboard says: “What if we took that thing from the song you brought – you know the one we all thought we liked but really in the end hated.”
There is one scene even more insider, where they try to fix the sound on Simon’s snare drum, which leaves them increasingly exasperated.
Woven throughout are any number of seemingly random conversations, many of them while the characters are stoned – about the houseboats in Sausalito, or the 1973 movie Don’t Look Now. They add to the realism. Some of them are even mildly amusing. But I suspect they would be more so if overheard spoken in a living room rather than from an Off-Broadway stage.
Not surprisingly, there is tension in the band, and, by the end of “Stereophonic,” it explodes. Diana is not the only one who thinks Peter is controlling. In what sounds like the themes of the play, Peter sees the search for perfection as the sacrifice an artist makes for his art, while Simon tells him off for believing that: “Music isn’t supposed to be perfect. It’s not about that. It’s about relating to each other…”
Playwrights Horizons through December 17
Running time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $61 to $101
Written by David Adjmi with original songs by Will Butler,
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Enver Chakartash, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang, sound design by Ryan Rumery, music director Justin Craig, vocal, text and dialect coach Gigi Buffington, wig and hair design by Tommy Kurzman, props supervisor Matt Carlin
Cast: Will Brill as Reg, Andrew R. Butler as Charlie, Juliana Canfield as Holly, Eli Gelb as Grover, Tom Pecinka as Peter, Sarah Pidgeon as Diana, and Chris Stack as Simon