Playing to an audience


It has been eight years since the Wilma opened its state-of-the-art theater at Broad and Spruce streets.

With fundraising now over, co-artistic director Blanka Zizka said, "We’re interested in working on new plays and in keeping connected with playwrights we’ve worked with in the past." A few years ago, the theater raised $7,500 from an anonymous donor to commission a play. The finished product is the first commissioned piece the theater has presented.

Laurence Klavan first approached Zizka with the idea of doing a piece about Henry James, one of his favorite authors. He had read a short story by James, Nona Vincent, about a playwright in the throes of producing a play who is caught in a romantic triangle. It spawned the idea for a new musical called Embarrassments.

Embarrassments is the second musical by Polly Pen and Klavan. Their first, Bed and Sofa, premiered at the Wilma in 1998 to decidedly mixed reviews.

Zizka predicted there would be changes made to the unsteady piece right up until opening night. The stakes were high, because Zizka invited representatives from theaters around the country to see the musical in hopes it would have a life beyond the Wilma premiere. Truth to tell, with all the great new plays floating around, the Wilma’s anonymous gift could have been spent on something more worthy.

First-time playwrights don’t have it easy. That is the substance of the play and it won’t bowl you over.

There’s the tension between the creative and the commercial, and the fact that everyone is a critic. So it’s no wonder that even a first-time playwright with the illustrious name of Henry James finds himself paralyzed with opening-night fright.

The date: Jan. 5, 1895. The place: the St. James Theater in London’s West End. Tonight, the brilliant novelist James hopes to change his life with the opening of his new venture: a play, into which he has poured his vulnerable heart. Meanwhile, deep in his imagination, a parallel story unfolds: the revealing tale of another playwright struggling with conflicted loyalties to art, love and life.

As the play opens, James is beset by jitters and besieged by a melodramatic leading man who wants the play to end with a wedding. James is so tightly wound he’s ready to explode.

But he can’t stop creating. He imagines a story about an earnest young New York playwright who’s struggling to bring his own theatrical work to fruition. James and his young playwright yearn to connect what they feel with what is said on their stages and felt by their audiences.

As a novelist, James is remembered for his paradox, ambiguity and moral conflicts that eluded any moral system. Transporting James to the stage is not easy and doubling it over as a play-within-a-play does nothing to clear our murky perception.

In this musical, a nervous James does not attend the opening night of his own play, Guy Domville. The production — whose opening night is a disaster — is not shown, but parallel to these activities, and for most of the evening, we are shown parts of what we come to realize is a short story James is composing, Nona Vincent. It contains its own story within which a play takes place.

The problems here lie with the concept, the dialogue, the lackluster music and the dull lyrics — otherwise, the acting and singing are just fine. Zizka’s restrained direction is sometimes awkward, but musicals were never the Wilma’s strong suit. This project may strike you as a playwright’s view of how not to write a play and the self-deprecating play bears a title that appears to be a setup.

In the role of James, Henry Stram is superb. He looks like James, acting out the famed novelist with a good mix of nervous energy, control and humor. The capable cast includes James Sugg as the young playwright; Jennifer Lyon as a difficult leading lady; Ann Morrison as the grand patroness, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Mary Martello in a variety of roles.

Through Jan. 4
Wilma Theater
Broad and Spruce streets
Tickets: $9-$50