Fall Update: David Byrne To the Rescue

At times like these, I’m grateful not to be reviewing theater regularly: I’d be too much of a downer. Most of the big offerings of Broadway’s fall season thus far have disappointed me. I’ve already shared my reservations about the critically acclaimed Slave Play. I had high hopes for Linda Vista, the latest from the always interesting Tracy Letts (August: Osage County). But it’s one of his weakest plays, a contrived and unconvincing comedy about a middle-aged divorced shlub trying to restart his sex life (and having an inordinate amount of success at it). One problem, for me, is Ian Barford, as the sad-sack antihero, who punches almost every line about 30% too hard, throwing off the naturalistic, slice-of-midlife feel that the author seems to be going for. The play might work better in a different production — with Letts himself in the lead.

I hate to bad-mouth The Sound Inside, by Adam Rapp (the Broadway debut for this veteran off-Broadway playwright), since it is certainly a well-crafted, intelligent play, with fine performances by Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman as a creative-writing professor battling cancer and the alienated student whom she is mentoring. But it struck me as such a self-conscious, insular, hothouse-flower of a play: set at Yale University, chock full of literary name-dropping (Jonathan Franzen, James Salter, Faulkner’s Wild Palms), too much of it narrated by the characters (“Christopher gets up to go to the bathroom…”) in cliched memory-play fashion. Even the surprise twist at the end struck me as unearned and manipulative. The critics, and I’m sure many theatergoers, have found the play moving. But it left me cold.

Thank God for David Byrne. His new show, American Utopia, which has just arrived on Broadway after a world tour, is such an upper that it makes up for a lot of dreary cancer patients. It is, to be sure, less a real musical than a staged concert, with Byrne, surrounded by a dozen musicians and dancers, providing the linking narration for a song cycle that includes new numbers (from his eponymous 2018 album) and older ones from his Talking Heads days (“Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House”). The linking theme is human connection, and Byrne is an earnest, surprisingly un-ironic guide throughout, so that even his one stab at overt political commentary — a call-and-response protest song highlighting the names of black victims of police violence — doesn’t seem like a cheap shot.

Narratively the show may be thin (almost nonexistent), but visually and musically it’s an absolute knockout. The onstage ensemble members — outfitted in identical metallic-gray jackets — accompany Byrne with simple but evocative choreography (by Annie-B Parson): human-hieroglyph hand gestures, synchronized step-moves, snaking conga lines. A cornucopia of percussion instruments — kettle drums, snares, little bongos on shoulder straps — flesh out Byrne’s intricate, African-influenced rhythms wonderfully. I might have preferred something more ambitious from the creator of Here Lies Love (Byrne’s immersive 2013 musical about Imelda Marcos that is surely the best musical of the decade never to make it to Broadway), but I cheered American Utopia along with everyone else.

 

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