Opening Nights: Sextet

Three composers experience disasters in their love lives in Tommy Smith's fragmented new drama of obsession. So—from heartache, art? Not exactly. The composers are Arnold Schoenberg, Peter Tchaikovsky, and the lesser-known 16th-century Italian Carlo Gesualdo, and we hear only bits of their music along the way. Smith's arty mashup adapts a trio of love triangles from the historical record. The atonal modernist Schoenberg (Brandon J. Simmons) drove his wife to an affair with his friend, the artist Richard Gerstl. Tchaikovsky (John Abramson) spurned his wife for the incestuous affection of his own nephew. Gesualdo (Chris Macdonald) murdered his wife and her lover in bed. Though Sextet capitalizes on the sensational aspects of each story, the artistic process—including interruptions, patrons, and the criticism of non-artists—is in some ways more compelling. Like identical triplets separated by three centuries, the composers refuse to discuss their work and relish controlling other people. Presented in short, non-linear vignettes, these parallels are well depicted but at times confusing—a procession of jealousy, revenge, insecurity, brutality, and inspiration. Yet perhaps because of Sextet's elaborately trifold structure (three husbands, three wives, three rivals, etc.), it's hard to invest in these musicians. The characters get diluted in the math. Mainly you feel sympathy for their hapless wives, even Gesualdo's unapologetically selfish one. Despite competent performances from all nine cast members, their characters seem incomplete, like stanzas in search of a unifying poem. And maybe that's the point. Like Schoenberg's dissonant music, the play rejects harmony and withholds easy gratification. But for a play about musical genius, there's not very much music. Instead, director Roger Benington stages Sextet in a 2-inch pool of water so that every movement—seemingly every thought—audibly drips or splashes or laps at the performers' feet. This becomes a musical score of sorts. It's an intriguing conceit, but one that might better serve another play. Bouncing off this liquid, reflective stage, Andrew D. Smith's evocative, dimensional lighting creates an eerie psychospace for the exploration of tormented genius. Each man arrives spotlighted in his own portal in the backdrop, as though bathed in the starlight of an idea. After such a grand prelude, however, a symphony does not follow.

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