If ever there were characters that didn’t need to break into song — and therefore, shouldn’t sing — it’s the uneasy foursome of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” Paul Mazursky’s 1969 satire on modern sexual mores. On some level, the songwriters Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Amanda Green (lyrics) must know they’re dealing with essentially non-singing characters, because most of the songs in their new musical, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” take place between the scenes to comment on what just happened. When characters do interrupt the action to sing — “interrupt” being the operative word — they tend to coo at each other. The New Group production opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center.
Sheik appears to be channeling in his inner Burt Bacharach here, giving us soft, lulling tunes that have all the dramatic urgency of a babbling brook on Big Sur and, in effect, work to soften the satiric edge of Mazursky and Larry Tucker’s screenplay. Much of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is verbatim from that script about a couple, Bob and Carol, who engage in extramarital sex after attending an est-style therapy group on the California coast. The couple, played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood in the film, attempts to justify their joint infidelities with double speak borrowed from the “I’m OK – You’re OK” school of pop psychology.
Shocked by such openly adulterous behavior are their good friends Ted and Alice, played to mismatched perfection by Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon in the film. While Culp and Wood had the more difficult task of playing naïve BSers on a social mission, Gould and Cannon stole the film by puncturing Bob and Carol’s hip ingenuousness with good old-fashioned middle-class cynicism.
In arguably the film’s sharpest scene, the uptight Alice visits a psychiatrist to confront her intimacy issues. She makes a couple of Freudian slips — confusing the names Bob and Ted, saying that she “likes” her husband and “loves” her children — all of which leads to a major breakthrough, which is interrupted by the shrink repeatedly telling her that the session is over. It’s a brilliant scene that epitomized the patient/shrink relationship for years to come and wound up being copied ad nauseam in other movies and TV shows. Mazursky cast a real psychiatrist in the role, and he left long pauses for Cannon to fidget under that shrink’s intense stare. Simply hilarious.
On stage, things are anything but sharp. Ana Nogueira plays Alice with a pouty surliness and Suzanne Vega plays the shrink, chucking aside for a moment her role as the show’s singing and guitar-strumming narrator. Despite repeating most of the movie dialogue, the scene lacks the awkward, nervous, quirky energy of the movie. And to louse things up even more, Nogueira ends the scene by singing a soul-searching tune about her breakthrough. It completely blunts whatever humor remains from Mazursky and Tucker’s script.
An earlier scene where Ted (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Michael Zegen, giving the only competent performance) wants to have sex and Alice doesn’t is even more seriously mishandled under Scott Elliott’s lackluster direction. Again, a song ends the scene, explaining what just happened without a tinge of irony. And, after parroting much of Mazursky and Tucker’s dialogue, Sherman changes one vital detail.
Against her desire, Alice agrees to have sex but doesn’t at the last minute: She just got her period. In the movie, she doesn’t have sex because she forgot to refill her Pill prescription and Ted accuses her of doing it on purpose, albeit subconsciously. In the movie, that Freudian interpretation of Alice’s Pill blunder effectively sets up the shrink scene. On stage in the musical, the scene dribbles into yet another angst-infused ballad.
In the movie, the scenes with Culp and Wood engage but don’t ever become flat-out funny. The characters are too unconsciously duplicitous as they attempt to arbitrate the new rules of their marriage. In the musical, the scenes between Bob (Joel Perez) and Carol (Jennifer Damiano) engage only because they are flat-out embarrassing. Every tossed shirt, skirt or sock is a cue to look away. And the therapy group that breaks down their defenses so Bob and Carol can emerge as better (and more deluded) spouses is populated with…people from the audience! They all looked trapped as Perez and Damiano emote their heads off over what’s supposed to be a 24-hour therapy marathon. Simply ludicrous.
Of course, the two couples end up in bed together. The original script did not indicate if the characters had sex or not. Mazursky wanted the actors to improvise the scene, and while Culp was ready to go all the way, the other three actors, led by Wood, decided against going there. That ambivalence nicely permeates the film’s conclusion.
On stage, there’s no uncertainty. The actors are aping the movie, going through the motions. A surprise ending might have had them going to a place Wood & Co. didn’t dare. According to this new “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” the last 50 years never took place.