by Ben Brantley on March 14, 2003
A wail of anguished frustration occasionally shoots through the close, still air that hangs over ”My Life With Albertine,” the new musical from Richard Nelson and Ricky Ian Gordon. That howl comes from two performers, playing older and younger versions of the same man, and they are singing about the exasperating elusiveness of the show’s title character.
”Albertine!” they exclaim, again and again. ”Oh, Albertine!” It’s hard, though, not to substitute another name in these moments and imagine that it’s Mr. Nelson and Mr. Gordon who are keening away with such thwarted passion. ”Oh, Marcel Proust!” they might be singing, in reference to the novelist who inspired their show. For, true to form, Proust has once again evaded the clutches of besotted, well-meaning artists who have tried to transform his work for their own purposes.
”My Life With Albertine,” which opened last night, is the inaugural production of the newly renovated Playwrights Horizons theater complex on West 42nd Street, and it speaks auspiciously of the company’s continuing commitment to venturesome work from worthy creators. It was Playwrights Horizons that first produced another unlikely musical from Mr. Nelson, ”James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ ” which proved that elliptical modern literature can indeed be made to sing beguilingly on a stage.
”Albertine,” unfortunately, shows the strain that has accompanied every attempt to adapt even small slices of ”Remembrance of Things Past,” Proust’s many-splendored, many-volumed novel, into other mediums. (Remember Volker Schlöndorff’s movie ”Swann in Love”?)
The production, directed by Mr. Nelson, features some lovely, intricately layered melodies from Mr. Gordon, which are redolent of Proustian ambivalence, and a performance of fine-grained eccentricity from Brent Carver (”Kiss of the Spiderwoman”) as the Proust-like Narrator. But there’s no avoiding the sense that the most multidimensional work in Western literature has been shrunken down to, at best, a mere three dimensions, verging on two.
”Remembrance of Things Past” may be famous for extolling the associative powers of a mere cookie, the madeleine. But there is nothing bite-size about any aspect of this extraordinary, endlessly self-analytical chef-d’oeuvre. ”My Life With Albertine” concerns only a fraction of ”Remembrance,” the sections devoted to the narrator’s recollections of his youthful fascination with a girl he meets at the seaside resort of Balbec.
Even a fraction of Proust, however, refuses to scale down to a simple equation. ”Whenever she moved her head,” Proust’s narrator writes of the sleeping Albertine, ”she created a fresh woman, often one whose existence I had never expected.” And that’s when she’s asleep.
”My Life With Albertine” pays full lip service to this concept of a multiplicity of personalities, created by the melting intersection of an object and a point of view. ”Every time I look I see a different Albertine,” Mr. Carver sings.
But the fact remains that Albertine is played by a single actress, Kelli O’Hara, a pretty woman with a pretty voice and a tendency to read lines in the manner of a classic musical comedy ingénue. She is, in other words, only one person. When Mr. Carver and Chad Kimball (as Marcel, the Narrator’s younger self) go on about Albertine’s infinite variety, it’s hard to understand where they’re coming from.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Nelson’s libretto, of necessity, telescopes events that in the novel consume many days, and many more pages of contemplative dissection, into a telegraphic plotline. The show’s story is presented as a play within a play in the narrator’s sumptuous belle époque apartment, exquisitely rendered in Thomas Lynch’s set, in which singers recreate past events before an assortment of music-hall-style backdrops.
The Narrator, a composer in this version instead of a novelist, looks like an anxious stage manager as Mr. Kimball, Ms. O’Hara and an ensemble that includes the delicious Emily Skinner enact the sad tale of Albertine in period costumes by Susan Hilferty. As in the novel, Marcel begins to worry that the object of his affection might prefer the company of women, and he whisks her away to his Paris apartment, where he watches over her jealously.
Mr. Nelson, who wrote the show’s lyrics with Mr. Gordon, makes a stab at reflecting the bottomless subjectivity of a narrator who turns introspection into an all-consuming science. But Proust’s reflections on love as self-inflicted torture wind up sounding like sentiments from latter-day pop ballads like ”Always on My Mind” and ”Hurting Each Other.”
The Narrator and Marcel, for example, sing a text-subtext counterpoint as Marcel makes love to Albertine.
”Don’t hurt me, don’t leave me, don’t lie to me” is what he means to say. Alas, all that comes out is, ”Kiss me, kiss me, tongue me.”
When this Marcel watches his Albertine sleep, it becomes less a meditation on the way his feelings for her keep changing than one on what an erotic dish she is. And Marcel’s troubled fantasies about Albertine as a lesbian are given especially crude embodiment, in bawdy barroom and cabaret numbers led by a lusty Ms. Skinner as Mlle. Lea, a singer whose incidental role in the novel is greatly expanded here.
Mr. Kimball, who played the charming dancing cow in the Broadway revival of ”Into the Woods” last year, conveys the petulance and egocentricity of the young Marcel, but not the artist within. It is impossible to imagine him growing up to be Mr. Carver, who has given the Narrator a compelling array of idiosyncrasies, which include a habit of swallowing breath in mid-sentence, suggesting the asthmatic that Proust was.
Mr. Carver’s mannered, furtive interpretation of the first act’s closing number, ”Song of Solitude,” is a fascinating stylistic exercise, although it probably comes across as more sinister than anyone intended. He seems understandably uncomfortable when he has to dispense avuncular wisdom to his younger self. ”Relations with women whom we abduct are often less perfect than others,” he says, sounding more Wildean than Proustian.
It’s only in Mr. Gordon’s score that you catch a glimpse of a Proustian fluidity of feeling and form, which is appropriate, since Proust wrote movingly about the slippery profundity of music. When the show opens, with Ms. O’Hara singing the words of Albertine’s last letter to the Narrator, the music (orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin) seems to swirl with regret, romance, fear and, yes, a sense of lost time, suggested by the wayward strains of an accordion.
And that’s as close to the real Proust as ”My Life With Albertine” gets. At the end, the Narrator steps forward to address the audience. ”Could I ever know you?” he asks. ”Could you ever know me? Like explorers who must search for what they know they’ll never find, it is the search that gives us life.” You can be forgiven for thinking that the appropriate snack to accompany this show would be not a madeleine, after all, but a fortune cookie.
MY LIFE WITH ALBERTINE
Book and lyrics by Richard Nelson; music and lyrics by Ricky Ian Gordon. Based on the ”Albertine” sections of ”Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust. Directed by Mr. Nelson; choreographed by Seàn Curran. Sets by Thomas Lynch; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by James F. Ingalls; sound by Scott Lehrer; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; musical director, Charles Prince; music coordinator, John Miller; associate producer, Ira Weitzman; director of development, Jill Garland; production manager, Christopher Boll; production stage manager, Matthew Silver. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director; William Russo, general manager. At 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton.
WITH: Brent Carver (the Narrator), Chad Kimball (Marcel), Kelli O’Hara (Albertine), Donna Lynne Champlin (Grandmother/Françoise), Emily Skinner (Mlle. Lea), Caroline McMahon (Andrée), Brooke Sunny Moriber (Rosemonde), Paul Anthony McGrane (the Pianist), Laura Woyasz (Mlle. Lea’s Girlfriend) and Nicholas Belton, Jim Poulos and Paul A. Schaefer (Three Young Men).