Not since Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George have “civilians” gotten so close to the creative individual’s “process” when attending a theater piece. David Adjmi’s Stereophonic is an intensely personal work that examines the creation of a rock album, a group’s follow-up to a late-blooming debut, in the very competitive music scene of the 1970’s. As the characters in the play have been compared to the celebrated Fleetwood Mac members in many articles appearing before the opening of this production, it’s safe to say this is an exquisite fantasia on the creation of the now-legendary rock masterpiece known as Rumours, an album firmly in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 10 of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
The audience is in the studio with the band from the moment they walk into the theater. David Zinn’s set design is ingenious. The forward part of the stage is the control room that looks on into the upstage sound room where the band plays, creates, fights and hurls expletives at the two engineers on our side of the glass. Not for a minute do we feel we aren’t eavesdropping and prying – private conversations, the thinking out loud of harmonies and lyrics, and snorting lines from one of the biggest bags of cocaine ever seen on stage are intimate moments that are on display. What starts out as being a few weeks in a studio to put together a sophomore effort becomes many months when the record label triples their budget upon the resurgence of their debut work on Billboard’s Albums and Singles charts. The pressure on the band now, to produce beyond the original expectations, recalls the adage, “You’re only as good as your last hit” – thankfully their last hit has rebounded, now in the Top 10.
Synergy is defined as the interaction or cooperation of two or more agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Where they have the support of their record company, these five artists, all creative individuals in their own right, must hurdle the “dissonances” of their five disparate personalities. Simon, the drummer, is the voice of reason out of the five. He reminds Peter, the lead guitarist and the lead in plotting the direction of the future of the band, that he is not a team player. “Music isn’t supposed to be perfect. It’s not about that. It’s about relating to each other…”
Where some of them are prepared to compromise for the greater good, Peter is stubborn, condescending, argumentative, envious, manipulative, and aside from having a keen ear for a hit, those are his good qualities. He is in a relationship with Diana, the lead vocalist and often an acutely sensitive songwriter. It is a song she has written and sings lead on that has finally landed the band in the Top 10. He plays upon her insecurities as an artist, something we discover is an ongoing facet of their relationship. Wanting something to do with her hands onstage, she saved for and finally started learning to play guitar. Peter pawns it while she is out working as a caregiver so as to pay their rent. He even denies her going into rehearsal with a tambourine.
The two women share the strongest bond, but allegiance goes out the window if either of them were to be offered a solo deal. Holly, vocalist and keyboard for the band, is shackled via marriage to the talented yet self-destructive bass player Reg. We first meet him one morning as he staggers in drunk from an all-night bender. As the studio kitchen’s coffee machine is broken, we are introduced to the oversized clear plastic bag of cocaine as a means to make Reg functional for the very expensive studio session.
Grover, the engineer, and Charlie, the assistant engineer, are the ringmasters for this circus, yet they too are subjected to Peter’s spewed bile. Grover may or may not be on borrowed time as the resume he offered the band when they first met was not based on any semblance of reality. Apparently, there’s a huge difference between working on a Jefferson Starship album and actually working on a Jefferson Starship album. Charlie’s level of experience is only slightly less tenuous. For him, he got to play the nepotism card as he’s a cousin to one of the lead members of the Doobie Brothers. Grover is envious, “You’re a Doobie Cousin?…God man you’re lucky, no one helped me.” When Charlie asks, “So who did you engineer for?” a dead pause is followed by the names of two bands that are less than negligible, but “and then there’s this band in Van Nuys…Toto”…Charlie asks, “Toto?…Like the Wizard of Oz? Toto???” It is an irony that perhaps if he had stayed with that Van Nuys band until they struck their own Recording Industry Association gold, he might not be in the predicament he finds himself in now.
The play at slightly over three hours is never boring. Just as Diana would rather eliminate one of her songs entirely from the album list rather than remove a verse there is a feeling that every moment in Adjmi’s play is there for a reason. Just as in the works of Harold Pinter and more recently Annie Baker, there is a lot to be said for the extended silences. There are points where words would be unnecessary underlining to what is actually transpiring onstage, especially once we come to know these characters as intimately as we do. There is fascinating attention paid to minutiae – we observe a scene where multiple attempts (tried and tried again) to tune a snare drum go on while the rest of the players look at this break in rehearsal as their private time. Apparently the engineers and Simon have been painstakingly plying this attempt at sound perfection for days before we, the audience, have come upon it. Not one of the other players mocks Simon for his exactness – they are all artists, and all have their own exactness to deal with.
Tom Pecinka’s Peter takes exactness to the “nth power” in his own playing and writing, so his being a discerning taskmaster in his relations with the engineers and the other band members should come as no surprise. Yet, as played, there’s an intriguing quality to him in a quietly desperate need for attention. We see this in his hypochondriac moment when he is so sure he has fragments of glass in his foot just as we see it in Diana’s management of the laundering of his jeans. It’s not something he has assigned to her; it reeks more of something he is incapable of doing on his own. Sarah Pidgeon’s Diana is another complex portrait, and again another tortured soul always seeking approval. She is emotionally beat up and manages to bring so much of her personal experience to her haunting songwriting. When she shows Peter lyrics to a new song she has written he doesn’t give her the attention that he himself seeks from her. He barely provides an acknowledgment and suggests touching upon it later. She folds up the lyrics and walks away deflated.
A very central scene to the underpinnings of their relationship has Peter with the engineers watching her do an umpteenth solo take in the sound room. The other band members are already home and asleep. She is now vocally and physically tired, but Peter persists. She asks for a word alone with him in the kitchen, not realizing the engineers can turn up the microphones enough to hear the private conversation. Peter alone with her turns his possessiveness and acute envy of her natural talent up a notch, even at the possible expense of destroying the band’s “meal ticket” during a pointless recording that doesn’t have to be completed that night. She manages to finally hit the right note (and Pidgeon’s voice really is an exquisite instrument), but we all know (in the studio and in the audience) that Diana now has absolutely nothing left in the tank.
Juliana Canfield’s Holly is as talented as Diana but she respects her own self-preservation. Canfield has poise and embodies inner strength as her marriage to Reg is an albatross around her neck, but she has drawn her line in the sand. Though Reg is incredibly talented, there is a limit to how much she will allow her marriage to hold her back from her own success and more important, sanity. As she pulls away (moving into a condo of her own far away from the team) and tries to focus on what she does brilliantly, Reg turns into what his buddy Simon refers to as the “sad, sad man in a blanket.” Unlike the others who need that approval, he is confident in his technique as one of the foremost bass players in the industry, but as played by the incomparable Will Brill, he surges and cleans up his act.
Unfortunately for Holly, he moves on cleaned-up without her. Brill, as seen in the recent A Case for the Existence of God and Uncle Vanya (performed in an intimate Flatiron apartment), is flawless in his ability to make an audience love, then hate, then love again a character not unlike our own family members – we watch them set themselves up to fail and then come out of their experience wiser and more settled. As Simon, the bravura Chris Stack is the only one that can put Peter in his place. He strikes one as the musician that has been around longer than the others. Like Reg, he is the recognized statesman of his instrument, but has never come this close to this level of success. Stack is utterly heartbreaking in his confession of how much he misses his family and how afraid he is of losing them to the necessities of his career (which ultimately does come to play itself out).
For someone with a lack of the requisite experience needed to wrangle a crew like the one he has before him, engineer Grover, as luminously played by Eli Gelb, goes from a young liar to the dramatic center of all that is happening around him. With his sad-sack sidekick Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), he matures into someone who always had this potential, but never had the platform to make it happen as he does with this not-so-merry band of brilliant misfits. Butler rises to the occasion too, especially when we feel how put out he is by the revelation of just how much Grover’s curriculum vitae is a work of fiction.
Stereophonic is very much a commanding theatrical and musical experience. One thing to “subconsciously bear in mind” is the five actors playing the band members have the musical chops to actually be in such a band. Just as we have considerable text devoted to the behind-the-scenes banter and trivialities, a great deal of stage time is spent performing the songs they are assessing for inclusion in the album. It amounts to a mini-concert for us, their band’s “fan club,” as it were. The music composed by Will Butler, a former member of the band Arcade Fire and an Oscar nominee for his score for Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, may suggest Fleetwood Mac outtakes, but they are worthy of a hit-generating band of the era.
The design for the production is absolutely sumptuous for off-Broadway standards – David Zinn’s elaborate set, Enver Chakartash’s beautiful period costumes (ah, yes, bell-bottomed jeans with appliqués and linen peasant shirts are featured), Jiyoun Chang’s sensitive-to-the-everchanging-mood lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s crystal clear sound design lets us hear multiple conversations over each other (just like in real life, imagine that!), tongue-in-cheek wig and hair design of Tommy Kurzman and the direction we’ve come to know Daniel Aukin for – beautiful subtleties, a gentle hand guiding a stunning cast and most importantly the rarity: never allowing us to see he had participated at all in what naturalness we’re seeing before our eyes.
The line of “theater imitating art amidst art imitating theater” is demonstrably blurred in Stereophonic. It goes to the heart of everything a giant like Stephen Sondheim believed in and can be seen in the words used for “Putting It Together” in Sunday in the Park with George, a landmark ode to the creative process, whatever the artistic discipline. Here in Mr. Adjmi’s play, the words (to use a time-honored cliché) fit like a glove. “Bit by bit, putting it together/ Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art/ Every moment makes a contribution/ Every little detail plays a part/Having just a vision’s no solution/ Everything depends on execution/Putting it together, that’s what counts!”
Stereophonic (extended through December 17, 2023)
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: three hours and five minutes including one intermission