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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 29, 2023

Andrew R. Butler, Sarah Pidgeon, Chris Stack, and Juliana Canfield
Photo by Chelcie Parry
How much you like Stereophonic, David Adjmi's play with (quite a lot of) music at Playwrights Horizons, may well hinge on how much you like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Aerosmith, and their ilk. Adjmi locks us in a 1970s recording studio–David Zinn's set is accurate, overstuffed, dotted with terrible '70s table lamps, and way better than his recent work on Funny Girl–and never lets us out, focusing on a tumultuous year in the life of an up-and-coming band. His main thesis is art isn't easy, and that gets illustrated with some pungent scenes, some agreeable '70s pastiche songs by Will Butler, and at least one breakout performance from Sarah Pidgeon. But why we have to be locked in here for over three hours, only Adjmi knows.

Recording sessions can be chaotic and full of cranky people. Adjmi establishes this at the outset, with one of those overlapping-dialogue scenes where it's hard to catch what anybody is actually saying. The coke, ludes, weed, and alcohol flow freely and tempers escalate, seldom to recede. The most voluble presence and, we quickly figure out, the biggest jerk is Peter (Tom Pecinka). He manages the band, is producing the album, and sings backup, and he and lead singer/songwriter Diana (Pidgeon) are a couple, or aren't, or are, depending on how the session is going. Peter, a control freak, yells, slams doors–heck, everybody slams doors–and hurls really vile invective at whoever isn't letting him have his way. Pecinka, light of voice and unprepossessing of stature, didn't persuade me that he could terrorize everyone else, and doesn't nail Peter's sudden late soliloquy on how "I am controlling because I am fearful of losing everything," revealing a self-awareness that flies in unconvincingly out of nowhere.

Diana is preternaturally talented, with a voice and manner that can evoke anybody from Jane Olivor to Stevie Nicks, and is also edgy and insecure. Pidgeon sings beautifully, acts the hell out of Diana, and must be exhausted by curtain. As for the rest of the band, Simon (Chris Stack) is British and morose over a failing marriage, while Reg (Will Brill) is British, drinks a lot, and evidently had a thing with Holly (Juliana Canfield), who smokes a lot and has a sometimes-uneasy best-bud relationship with Diana. Grover (Eli Gelb), the senior sound engineer, is ambitious and deceitful, but sympathetic, and the chief target of Peter's rants; his assistant, Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), might as well wear a "comic relief" baseball cap borrowed from Gutenberg!, but he is funny.

The band–do we ever find out its name?–moves quickly up from a No. 8 single to a No. 1 album; along the way is much dish about contemporary artists. If you're nostalgic, you'll smile at the mentions of Hall & Oates, The Doobie Brothers, Merle Haggard, on and on. But Adjmi's emphasis is on the need to create and, as he writes in an articulate program note, "a love [of making art] so ardent and intractable it transcends logic; it transcends the humiliation and risk that inevitably come with it." Egos are fragile, romantic connections fleeting, drugs omnipresent, and slowly, slowly, art gets created. The actors sing and play guitar, bass, piano, and drums with the proficiency and confidence of a Def Leppard, and the close-harmony and a cappella passages are really lovely; they just take up so much time.

A couple of excellent scenes stand out: Peter and Diana hashing out their troubled couplehood, and Holly and Grover in a hilarious, stoned divertissement riffing on '70s movies, notably Last Tango in Paris and Don't Look Now. There's a heavy whiff of sex in the air, and even in Enver Chakartash's wasn't-'70s-fashion-awful costumes, these are attractive young people we want to see get together.

Adjmi writes realistic, sometimes amusing dialogue, and Daniel Aukin directs to mine maximal humor out of it, with the jagged rhythms and friendly-bullshitting encounters presumably endemic to recording sessions like these. But there's also an excess of screaming and nearly unrelenting tension, what with Peter hectoring, Diana complaining, Simon suffering, Reg sulking, Holly mistrusting, and Grover nursing his wounds, understandably, after getting chewed out by Peter yet again. It's as if Adjmi was so determined to illustrate the bruises and abuses and arguments and insecurities that go into producing an enduring work of popular art, after that he had nothing else to say. We get all that. We got it well before 10:45.

Through December 17, 2023
Playwrights Horizons
Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
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