Although British playwright Simon Stephens has written three musicals with composer/lyricist Mark Eitzel, formerly of the indie rock band American Music Club, Cornelia Street, set on a quiet back street in the West Village, is the first to arrive in New York where it is having its world premiere courtesy of Atlantic Theatre – Stage 2.
Led by two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz who is on stage almost throughout the show, Cornelia Street, an elegy for a bygone age of unique Greenwich Village restaurants and coffee houses, does not give its cast enough to do. The songs do not forward the plot but tell us what we already know, and the plot such as it is does not get going until the second half. An interesting attempt to create a place and its regular denizens on stage, Cornelia Street in this form does not make a satisfying statement.
Possibly suggested by the demise of the Cornelia Street Café in 2019 due to rising costs and gentrification, the new musical takes place at Marty’s Café on Cornelia Street where protagonist Jacob (played by Butz) has been chef for 28 years. Recently he has been trying to turn the menu into a gourmet feast to the consternation of owner Marty who is shocked by the bills for top grade ingredients. As a single parent, Jacob and Patti, his 16-year-old high school-aged daughter, live above the restaurant.
There appear to be only three regulars left: Sarah, a 74-year-old retired opera singer who has been coming to Marty’s for decades; William, a 37-year-old taxi driver into various nefarious sidelines; and John, a shy 28-year-old computer scientist. Marty has been informed that the building is being sold which spells the demise of the restaurant. However, Jacob has friend Daniel McCourt, a former denizen, now a big success in real estate, who he hopes to interest in buying it and returning the restaurant to its glory days. Unfortunately, Jacob and Daniel have fallen out of touch and Marty points out that since the restaurant is not making a profit (particularly with Jacob’s lavish spending) Daniel will probably not be interested.
Complicating Jacob’s life is the arrival of Misty, his 30-year-old step-daughter from his relationship with Laura (who has just died). Misty is broke and a former addict and is bitter about Jacob’s abandonment of her mother years ago. Jacob gives her a job as a waitress and she inspires Patti to study to retake exams she has failed over the summer before her senior year. Philip, the regular 29-year-old waiter and bartender, has dreams of being an actor but never seems to get the roles for which he auditions. While an elegiac tone hangs over the café in its waning days, each character appears to be pursuing his or her own story. The second act moves a bit faster with Marty having an appointment to see Daniel, William offering Jacob a risky get rich quick scheme, the regulars trying to fix John up with Misty, and the date of Patti’s exams coming up soon.
Unlike Stephens’ fully-realized plays (which include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Heisenberg, Harper Regan, Punk Rock, and On the Shore of the Great World, his characters here are thin as though he really doesn’t know any of these people. We really only learn one thing about each one other than that we assume they are neighborhood people. Each character has a song which defines them but also stops the show dead in its tracks. The atmosphere is real but the nostalgia seems manufactured rather than inherent in the setting. What were the glory days of Marty’s Café? Unlike the real Cornelia Street Café, it does not seem to have had music or poetry readings, nor do we find out about its former celebrities.
Under Neal Pepe’s rather innocuous direction, all of the characters are worried about something, which the actors convey very well, but we never feel we know them or their relationships. Most complicated is Jacob’s history: Patti is the product of a one-night stand with Crystal who appears to have opted out of her life, while his history with Laura, Misty’s mother, seems to have ended long before. While Butz is fine as the harried chef and single father, there isn’t much more to his performance, while Kevyn Morrow’s appearances as Marty are simply on the level of an accountant worried about keeping the books out of the red. We don’t even hear of his wife Charlene until the very last scene. Most fully developed is Gizel Jiménez as a three-dimensional Misty who reveals different levels to her life and personality throughout.
The regulars aren’t well defined either, making us not care about any of their fates. George Abud’s taxi driver William seems only to be passing through until he suggests a dangerous amoral streak in the second half. Other than being shy of women, there isn’t much more to Ben Rosenfield’s John. As the retired opera singer, Mary Beth Peil whose own career has included Broadway musicals and roles at The New York City Opera and the Metropolitan National Company is a colorful character as Sarah who is always on the verge of telling her story but never quite gets around to it.
Lena Pepe is believable as the 16-year-old junior but her role is simply defined by her disagreements with her father. Esteban Andres Cruz makes feisty Philip, the gay waiter, more interesting than he is on paper. The high-powered real estate agent doesn’t show up until the final scene and although Jordan Lage suggests a fascinating backstory both of his former friendship with Jacob and his days at Marty’s Café, it is too little, too late.
Scott Pask’s all-wood café setting with its tin ceiling and red and white awning looks too clean and neat for a restaurant which is described as “out of time, out of fashion, out of place.” The costumes by Linda Cho have the lived-in look of the actors’ own togs. Stacey Derosier’s lighting seems to go from bright to dark without much atmosphere. The seven-piece band (in full view of the audience) under the direction of Chris Fenwick is fine but can’t make the score sound anything but low-key and untheatrical in John Clancy’s orchestrations. Choreographer Hope Boykin is given one scene which gets all of the cast on their feet but it seems misplaced considering the rest of the story and the show.
Simon Stephens’ tenth New York show is a disappointment considering his previous outings on our local stages. Cornelia Street beautifully captures its elegiac mood but seems an unfinished piece of work, needing honing and shaping to make us care more about the end to the restaurant that seems inevitable. The talented cast does what they can with underwritten roles but cannot suggest the backstories that they have not been given. As a musical Cornelia Street is not unpleasant but does not make much of an impression or leave a sense of the glory days it wants to celebrate.
Cornelia Street (extended through March 5, 2023)
Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-989-7996 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission