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These Paper Bullets!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

These Paper Bullets! Cast
Photo by Ahron Foster

Go to the theatre often enough, and it becomes hard to shake the feeling that there are more spins on Shakespeare plays than there actually are Shakespeare plays—they just seem to have the same titles and use the same language, even if one or the other (or both) flies in the face of reason. So These Paper Bullets!, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, starts off ahead in one respect: It's a "spin" that doesn't pretend it's the original, and thus frees you of expecting to see greatness when mediocrity is really what's in the offering. So kudos to playwright Rolin Jones for taking the plunge and admitting up front that, although he's taking as his inspiration the great Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing, he's (gasp!) creating something new.

Enjoy that high while you can, because it doesn't last long once Jackson Gay's production starts.

It turns out very quickly, you see, that Jones has given us a spin after all—he's just pretended it isn't one. Is that better or worse? I'm not sure, to be honest. What's rather more clear is that Jones and Gay have taken an ironclad work and, through their stewardship, made it so iffy, so unsteady, and so just-plain annoying, that, even at a running time of two and a half hours (shorter than your typical uncut Much Ado), it feels overlong by at least an hour, and maybe much more than that.

Nicole Parker and Justin Kirk
Photo by Ahron Foster

Their stumbling especially stings here because the premise is so good that you're rooting for it to come together. Resetting Much Ado in 1964 London, with a certain fab four singers as the lead men struggling with modern problems of love, is flat-out brilliant. Okay, so the group is called The Quartos rather than... you know, something else. The parallels are unmistakable, and Jones, working with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong as the composer of The Quartos' songs, has had apparently struggled not a whit in aligning them to Shakespeare's dicta.

So front man Claude (Bryan Fenkart) is the jealous romantic in love with the with-it Higgy (Arian Venturi), and his bed-hopping band mate Ben (Justin Kirk) is the one conducting an on-again-off-again claw-scratching courtship with swank fashion designer Bea (Nicole Parker). Rounding out the quartet are Balth (Lucas Papaelias) and drummer Pedro (James Barry), who's also responsible for giving rise to the villain: his brother, Don Best (Adam O'Byrne), who's never gotten over being replaced by Pedro because, well, he couldn't hold together a beat if industrial epoxy were involved.

Jones isn't afraid of having fun with his dopey idea, and most of the choicest gags are aimed squarely at fans of either '60s pop or The Bard himself. My personal favorite is between Scotland Yard investigators Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), Mr. Cake (Tony Manna), and Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee), discussing a message that's heard when playing The Quartos' recent hit song, "Last Time," backward:

Cake: "It said... 'De Vere wrote them all.'"

Berry: "Who's De Vere?"

Urges: "We're working on that, sir. But we believe he may be the author of everything The Quartos have written."

Unfortunately, outside of this and the introduction (a daffy, exposition-laden newsreel-type presentation called "What Is Wrong With the Youth of England?"), These Paper Bullets! is rarely clever or lucid. Aside from the names (barely) and a few other minor details, Jones hasn't so much transformed Much Ado as he has replanted it, without much in the way of justification or attempts to smooth away the disconnect between the Elizabethan then and the media-clogged (almost-)now. Take, for example, this speech from Ben, in which Jones quotes Shakespeare's Benedick almost verbatim: "A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Go away. Shall joking and phrasing and these paper bullets of the brain awe a bloke from his career of wants? GO AWAY! NO! THE WORLD MUST BE PEOPLED!" Even as slightly tweaked, this language does not sit naturally, say, on Paul McCartney's tongue.

Jones's deference to Shakespeare isn't much better when it's confined to style and basic plot points. Most of the scenes with Cake, Berry, and Urges are unbearable; one in the second act, in which Berry keeps stabbing people with a sedative pen, runs some ten minutes longer than its single (only mildly funny) joke would rightfully allow. The wedding scene has been turned into a time-stretching extravaganza, complete with live video footage and copious amounts of audience interaction, that does everything except elicit many laughs or highlight the foundational weaknesses in Claude and Higgy's relationship. The play itself isn't even allowed to end after its plot (and final dance) do; it must extend for another two minutes to accommodate a lame bit with Queen Elizabeth (II) and an irritating TV reporter.

This is all sloppy and unnecessary; as long as he was borrowing everything else (he calls his play "a modish ripoff"), Jones might have done well to reconsider why Shakespeare didn't dwell ad nauseam on such moments himself. Gay, too, doesn't know when to quit. Her nonstop staging on Michael Yeargan's smashing set, which makes liberal use of a revolve and a screen for displaying Nicholas Hussong's terrific, era-setting projections, is fluid and dizzying in the best ways. (The crazy costumes by Jessica Ford and the bopping lights by Paul Whitaker are spot on, too.) But the internal pacing is erratic, defusing laughs and diluting drama; and Gay's staging of the purest comedy scenes—particularly for Berry, as well as Ben and Bea when they're sneaking around eavesdropping in the first act—is tooth-grinding and awkward. Gay has also apparently directed her actors to scream every line, which conveys less emotional nuance than desperation, and when you factor in the mushy sound design (by Broken Chord) and the cast's overwrought and shaky accents, many of the lines are hard to interpret, even given their excessive volume.

Only Kirk and Parker, deploying no shortage of physical comedy chops, come the closest to creating full-bodied characters within this rickety framework. They don't have much chemistry together, which is admittedly an issue, but alone they bridge the gap between the centuries to provide believable renditions of these two hard-to-getters might appear in the modern world. But all the other actors, including a hyper-straining Keira Naughton in the Margaret analog of Elsie, are working visibly hard, and fruitlessly, to give the evening shape.

It's Armstrong's songs, complete with dazzling orchestrations by Tom Kitt, music direction by Julie McBride, and head-popping choreography by Kevin Williamson, that are the highlights throughout. Though they frequently echo their ultra-famous models like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "Can't Buy Me Love" in their melodies, rhythms, and playfulness, they're entirely fresh creations that can and do stand on their own, and sound like they could be chart-topping hits themselves.

So good are the numbers, by the way, that you wonder whether they could support a complete original musical. Maybe—if nothing else, they prove Armstrong shouldn't be counted out as theatrical composer, even given that his previous stage offering, American Idiot, was essentially a staged Green Day recording. But adding anything else to this show at this point would risk further rupturing a work already crammed to bursting. Jones may have within him the ability to craft a lean and lithe Shakespeare spoof, or even a musical, but as it is, These Paper Bullets! is clogged with just too much ado.

These Paper Bullets!
Through January 10
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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