Review: 'Doris to Darlene' at Playwrights Horizons
None of this should work at all. "Doris to Darlene: A
Cautionary Valentine" is a staged meditation on music, love and identity that intercuts freely between the operas of Wagner, 1960s girl-group pop and the struggles of a contemporary gay teen.
And playwright Jordan Harrison's outsized ambitions don't stop with his characters and themes: He's intertwined these three tales in preciously poetic counterpoint, with actors narrating and pronouncing stage directions as well as dialogue.
If that sounds like aesthetic overkill, not to worry. In the hands of director Les Waters, a razor-sharp design team and an attractively eccentric but focused cast, Harrison's teasing, rapturous chamber opera of a play spins and crackles like a beloved old 78 under a bamboo needle.
The spin is literal on Takeshi Kata's sleek turntable set, which Waters uses in a hypnotic theme-and-variations style, aided by Jane Cox's egg-dye lighting and Christal Weatherly's precise yet somehow timeless costumes. Characters from 1870s Bavaria, 1960s Detroit and present-day suburbia often occupy the stage at the same time, and Waters keeps the lines bright without overly nudging the contrasts.
The crackling is largely thanks to the cast. In the title role of a half-black pop singer, de'Adre Aziza gambols from innocence to bitterness without breaking a sweat; she sets the show's cool, presentational tone beautifully. She sings a few original songs in a girl-group style (written by Kirsten Childs, composer of "The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin") at the behest of Vic Watts (Michael Crane), a Wagner-besotted hipster Svengali in aviator glasses who's transparently based on "Wall of Sound" producing genius Phil Spector.
Meanwhile, Wagner himself (David Chandler) labors over "Tristan und Isolde" and the Ring Cycle under the attentions of a sensitive, punkishly coifed King Ludwig (Laura Heisler), whose love dare not speak its name except in song.
Present-day interlocutors are a gawky teen (Tobias Segal) with Darlene's oldies on his iPod and a high school music teacher, Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), who rhapsodizes about Wagner's "Liebestod."
We must admit that this all verges on twittering pretentiousness and recycled "Behind the Music" cliches. But Harrison's purplest metaphors are expressed with such crystalline language, and spiced so judiciously with cutting wit, that the play keeps its sense of proportion.
There's also real insight under Harrison's stylized surfaces. Although he loves these hopeless musical romantics, he doesn't romanticize them. He understands that passion - musical and otherwise - often feels closer to nausea, and that a creative fire can be a fickle flicker at best.
It doesn't hurt that Harrison wears his erudition lightly. Even worldly-wise Mr. Campani has relatively few moments of pedantry, and the reliable Nelis makes even these unaccountably moving.
"Doris to Darlene" is that rare thing: a rarefied theatrical experiment that has the glow of pure entertainment and the warmth of a folk tale. You might even say it plays like music.
DORIS TO DARLENE: A CAUTIONARY VALENTINE. Written by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Les Waters. Through Dec. 23 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. Tickets: 212-279-4200. Seen Thursday.
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