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Off Broadway Reviews

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 4, 2020

Jennifer Damiano and Joél Pérez
Photo by Monique Carboni
As you enter the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre where Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have taken up residence, you can practically smell the whiffs of marijuana smoke lingering in the air. There is a retro, glass beaded curtain against the back wall casting psychedelic reflections, and the playing space resembles a rumpus room with super-mod furniture and a bed large enough for two couples. If the décor doesn't give it away, it's 1969, baby, so turn on, tune in, and drop out!

The plot of the unconventional new musical Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice hews closely to the 1969 film on which it is based. (Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay.) The show begins as documentary filmmaker Bob (Joél Pérez) and his wife Carol (Jennifer Damiano) embark on a weekend trip to Big Sur, where they attend consciousness-raising workshops as part of the Human Potential Movement. Although they expect to be mere observers, their attitudes toward love and relationships are completely transformed.

With their consciousness fully raised, Bob and Carol aspire to make their closest friends, Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira), similarly mindful and sexually with-it. Ted and Alice, though, are content in their comfortable carnal conservatism and resist such openness in their own marriage. As confessions of extramarital affairs begin to emerge, though, the foursome comically grapples with issues of monogamy while tapping into the sexual tensions simmering among the two couples.

The book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and songs by Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Amanda Green (lyrics) make for strange bedfellows. Eschewing traditional musical comedy structures, songs often weave through and above the scenes as if to be experienced in a drug-induced high. Characters often step out of the action to perform with a handheld microphone, commenting on their feelings and philosophical observations. Consequently, the onstage band, including a ubiquitous Band Leader (Suzanne Vega) who serves as narrator and voice of numerous unseen characters, provides an aural tapestry for the evening. (Jessica Paz's sound design contributes to the music's textural impression.)

The effect is intriguing, but the approach ultimately is at odds with the material. At its core, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a marriage comedy or sex farce, akin to Cactus Flower, The Owl and the Pussycat, or Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Broadway staples of the 1960s. The farcical material cries out for the pop melodiousness of a Burt Bacharach or the musical-comedy tunefulness of a Cy Coleman (who wrote the music for I Love My Wife, which has a similar premise).

Sheik's music is moody and complex when a lighter touch would make the book scenes more riotous. The lyrics, while often slyly alluding to metaphysical philosophies of the 1960s, tend to be all-purpose and interchangeable. For instance, in one of the love songs the characters sing generically about journeys and stars:

I was hoping that maybe there'd be
Some kind of journey to me
But now I know just what it was
A journey to us

The show concludes with the contemplative (and the most memorable) song "What's Up with Love?" The finale is an apparent homage to the film's ending, which used Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now Is Love."

Ana Nogueira and Michael Zegen
Photo by Monique Carboni
The distancing effect of the music tends to dilute the book's satirical aim. While there are hints at the scary precariousness of marriage and relationships, the show does not have the lacerating precision of a play like Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends, for example. It is a pity because there are so many good things about Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Chief among these is the cast under Scott Elliott's fluid direction. (Kelly Devine did the musical staging.) Damiano is a force of nature with a voice to match as the woman who changes the matrimonial rules. Pérez brings just the right balance of swagger and vulnerability to a man in his thirties trying to hold onto the grooviness of one in his twenties. As the uptight attorney Ted, Zegen (playing a very different character than he does as Mrs. Maisel's husband on television) is charmingly awkward. Nogueira is delightful as the most repressed character of the quartet, who finds herself caught up in a shifting moral landscape. As the Band Leader, Vega, both to her credit and disadvantage, tends to disappear into the musical backdrop.

The show also boasts outta sight production elements. Derek McLane's scenic design playfully captures the 1960s milieu without overdoing it, and with the assistance of Jeff Croiter's lighting, the action effortlessly moves from one locale to the next. Thankfully, Jeff Mahshie's wonderful costumes do not exhibit comparable restraint. (Ted's checkered pants must be seen to be believed.)

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is an ambitious musical, but sadly, its appeal is as lasting as a one-night stand.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
Through March 22, 2020
The New Group at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues), New York City
Tickets online and current performance schedule: