When Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde debuted, around the turn of the 20th century, it was seen as so risqué — well, pornographic — that it went unproduced again for two decades. But yesterday's shock is today's prime time, and Michael John LaChiusa's 1993 musical adaptation, Hello Again, now appears no more barrier-breaking than your average HBO series.
That's not for want of trying. In a 2011 staging in New York, partially clad actors carried on within touching range of viewers. But distance is more in keeping with one of this work's themes — that walls remain even after two people come together — and Spinning Tree Theatre's production, at Off Center Theatre, is relatively restrained. Its minimalist set keeps the actors safely behind the fourth wall, masked by clothing, bedding or physical positioning.
Spinning Tree's Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman direct a company of 10 actor-singers who commingle through 10 scenes, each in a different decade of the 20th century. The chronology jumps around — from the 1960s to the 1930s to the 1950s back to the 1910s, etc. — and characters return, but in different eras. They don't have names; we know them simply as the Actress, the Husband, the Soldier, the Young Wife, etc. This makes them transposable, more prototypes than individuals, and it underscores the constancy of the need for human contact. Whether expressed as love or the desire for gratification, the connections sought in this play's casual trysts have similar outcomes: Physical needs are satisfied, but the spiritual side is left wanting more.
There is, for example, the 1950s Husband (Jerry Jay Cranford), who's more interested in getting to the opera than having sex with his Young Wife (Stefanie Wienecke). Their scene is one of the show's most poignant. As he goes through the motions of lovemaking, she dreams of might-have-beens in the moving and memorable "Tom."
The 1970s Writer (Seth Jones) says it well: "Don't we all need something, anything, that will quench our thirst for beauty and end our search for happiness?" But not all seek, or find, that happiness, chasing after pleasure that's ephemeral or an ideal that may not exist. Says the disillusioned Senator (Charles Fugate): "The Constitution guarantees people the right to spend their whole lives pursuing a lie."
For others, pursuit is its own reward. Shelby Floyd's appealing Nurse is a coquettish innocent in the 1940s, cajoled into a liaison with Jacob Aaron Cullum's Soldier. She shows up again in the 1960s, this time as a fully charged, sexy helper out to control the encounter with College Boy (Steven Eubank). Somebody took what was mine, she sings. I'm gonna steal a little bit of you. But the threat is understated, the quick sex scene humorous.
A seven-piece orchestra, led by pianist and conductor Kevin Bogan, ably accompanies this talented and capable cast, though it occasionally threatens to overpower them. The vibrant and complicated score morphs to represent the respective eras. Dialogue is spoken but mostly sung, and LaChiusa's tunes set the tone — sometimes harmonious, sometimes not — to signify the status of his characters' experiences.
Symbols and refrains (as well as characters) reappear in this intelligent work about our ache to seek love, or moments of it. The Young Thing (Tyler Eisenreich) in the 1970s, the Husband in 1912, the Actress (Lena Andrews) in the 1980s — all try to hold on.
In an honest arc, the entertaining Hello Again begins and ends with the Whore (Julie Shaw), whose encounters show us someone who isn't disappointed by unmet expectations.