One of Bobby's friends, inverting a familiar line, comments that "an unlived life is not worth examining."
Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through July 6, 922- 8900.
It may work in the Arden's favor that Company is a "concept" musical -- that Stephen Sondheim's songs for his 1970 musical are a stylistic pastiche, and that George Furth's book is episodic and discontinuous, more a set of variations on a theme than a sustained story.
For the unevenness of Terrence J. Nolen's production -- in the dramatic and musical abilities of the cast (which are occasionally mismatched), in the inventiveness of the staging, in the degree of the actors' and characters' emotional connectedness to each dramatic moment, and, most seriously, in the central character's growth and development -- proves not to be a fatal flaw, and might (I say might) actually be an asset.
Bobby (Greg Wood) is a commitment-phobic New Yorker whose surprise 35th birthday party, thrown for him by his numerous married and cohabitating friends, prompts him to examine his dating habits and romantic ambitions. In a series of short scenes and vignettes, Bobby visits each couple, passively watching as they marry, divorce, quarrel, flirt, drink, overeat, smoke dope and (literally) wrestle each other to the floor, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) betraying and reaffirming their love for one another.
The characters in a particular scene are rarely the ones who sing. Instead, the other characters form a musical chorus of kibitzers and commentators: his friends hectoring Bobby with advice (with the felicitous moniker "Bobby baby, Bobby bubbie"), his current lovers chirping their disapproval about his inability to commit, and sometimes a solo voice adding running musical commentary (Anne Robinson as the cynical Joanne, or the radiant Rema Webb as Marta, who gets to sing "Another Hundred People," Sondheim's paean to New York's magnificent transience).
Though most of the characters hang around as commentators throughout the evening, they are each given only a few moments to shine as individuals, and several of the actors do: Deborah Seif and Anthony Lawton as a couple smoking dope for the first time (a scene that, like Joanne's references to Op Art and Pinter, feels very '70s, despite all the CD players, video cameras and halogen lights of Nolen's '90s updating); Cecilia Ann Birt and Robert Michael Kelly as aging wrestlers; and Jennifer Childs as a bride panicking on the way to the altar -- a performance notable not only for the virtuosity of her frantic patter-song, but even more for the truthfulness of her emotional reversals.
If Greg Wood's Bobby is less than completely satisfying (to me, at least; my wife found him thoroughly convincingly and often quite touching), it may be because the individual discoveries he makes, about himself and his friends, don't build from one scene to the next, and never really add up. His realization that he could love his male friends' wives more than he can imagine loving an available woman; his comic chagrin on discovering that the lover (Stacie Renna) who he is trying to persuade not to go has decided to stay; his sudden discovery, on being propositioned by Joanne, that he'd rather be with someone he can take care of -- all these don't necessarily take him anywhere, certainly not to the apparent decisiveness of his final number.
It's quite possible that a production of Company that is more uniformly cast, conceptually integral and consistently brilliant might really hang together. (And I have to confess that, unlike several of my critical colleagues, I did not see the original 1970 production, the cast album of which sounded incessantly from my sophomore-year college roommate's hi-fi in 1971; nor last year's acclaimed London revival; nor this season's retro-'70s Broadway revival; nor either of the two collegiate productions in Philadelphia this past year -- so I have little basis for comparison).
One of Bobby's friends (Neil Hartley), inverting the observation that "an unexamined life is not worth living," comments that "an unlived life is not worth examining." Whether by choice or by default, this becomes the keynote of Bobby's character, and of the production as a whole: we join Bobby, and all his friends, in combing over his life in all its details; but we're never completely convinced that he's been sufficiently in touch with his own emotions and experiences to have really lived it. That might be Sondheim and Furth's arithmetic; it just doesn't yield a satisfying bottom line.