William Finn and James Lapine’s “A New Brain,” directed by James Lapine, enjoyed a too-brief run at City Center Encores! Off-Center during the final weekend of LGBTQ Pride Month. Though it deals with Finn’s real-life struggle with a brain disease, he and Lapine managed to find the humor, even while tugging our heart strings, in descant with the comedic refrain. Dazzling anew, it featured Jonathan Groff as Gordon Michael Schwinn, the struggling composer who writes songs to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the song he’s currently struggling to write is for the feckless Mr. Bungee, played as a manically acetylene lurker by Dan Fogler. Gordon’s gal pal bestie Rhoda (Alyse Alan Louis) plays a delicate balancing game. She loves Gordon and is in love with him, though she knows that Gordon’s loverboy sailor Roger (Aaron Lazar) has his heart, body and soul. Fogler’s Bungee is the bully who always saw where to pull your BVDs above your waistband, even when you were going commando–he’s “Mean Girls” brilliance in male form. Groff is our Everyman, whose wit, and Finn’s, sparkles through his every tribulation as we experience brain injury almost literally from the inside. Groff is gruff, outrageously funny in his all-too-human guise ranging from hubris to how-the-hell-did-this-happen-to-me?
Rema Webb is arresting as the Homeless Woman, who’s a one-woman Greek Chorus and confidante, as she wends her way through an extremely spare set. After all, the stars are the stars and it was all about “Heart and Music” in a 100-minute, all too brief performance that had toes tapping and humming all the way through both onstage and in the audience. Webb’s voice is a storyteller in itself and thrills in its facets.
Once we’re in the hospital, where Gordon is taken for tests, we meet angels who may have used up their mercy elsewhere. Richard is the nice nurse (Josh Lamon), who is zaftig and huggably delicious, even when he’s indulging himself in semi-fantasies featuring Gordon—and sometimes Roger. Nancy D, the thin nurse, is Jenni Barber. Both Richard and Nancy D get some defining moments that anyone who’s ever spent some time in hospital remembers well.
The Encores! series attracts the best artists in surprising combinations. Quentin Earl Darrington provided great gravitas as the minister, even as his voice and mien inspired increases in heartbeats. Ana Gasteyer as Gordon’s mother Mimi—yes, it’s Encores! so she’s way-too young to be Gordon’s mom—was comic, tough, tender and her “The Music Still Plays On” was part lament, part lullaby and grabbed you around the heart in amazing ways. Actors who know comedy play its flip-side, drama, with a reckless beauty that captures life. Her interpretation of this song of the truth of a mother’s love had many reaching in pockets and purses, where’s that darned hankie?!
There are 2200 seats in the main theater at City Center and the Off-Center series features a different special event for each performance during the run of the show. The discussion we caught about how the brain experiences reality, and how each of our 2200 realities would be different as we the audience watched the performance added even more depth to a show about love, family—of birth and of choice—and what it means to be human and alive. When I first saw this show more than five years ago, there were so many wonderful aspects–the nightmarishly fantastic Tango scene, the sponge bath and shower scenes, the tenderness of Gordon and Roger, Gordon and Mimi, the wisdom of the Homeless Lady, and the sandpaper and silk of our benighted nurses were what I remembered. This time around, I’m a bit more experienced and it’s the connections and the love that come shining through.
Next up at Encores! Off-Center are the classic “Little Shop of Horrors” and Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party.” If you haven’t got plans, make them and go to www.NYCityCenter.org
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