Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland in A Second Chance
(© Joan Marcus)
Through the Shen Family Foundation, Ted Shen has spent over a decade supporting some of the most exciting new musical theater around, from last fall's Fun Home at the Public Theater to Playwrights Horizon's Grey Gardens, which eventually hit Broadway. His deep commitment to and passion for cutting-edge tuners is pretty well-known in theatrical circles, and so it's not entirely surprising that he has struck out as a writer himself with A Second Chance, a delicate two-character piece which opened last night at the Public.
Shen has provided book, music and lyrics for the show that, over the course of 90 minutes, charts the relationship between the recently widowed Dan (Brian Sutherland) and divorcee Jenna (Diane Sutherland), who meet one night at a dinner party hosted by mutual friends. They hit it off, and, though both are intrigued by the other, neither of them makes any attempt to ensure that they might be able to stay in touch. He's concerned that his grief is still to fresh and that embarking on a relationship would constitute some sort of infidelity to his deceased wife. Jenna, a free-spirit through and through, worries that this somewhat introverted, stodgy banker just might not be right for her.
Fate (or Shen, whose script has a number of convenient contrivances) intervenes for these two, though, a month later when they run into one another on the subway. After this, well, it's not difficult to imagine the highs and lows of these two lost souls' romance.
Though hardly the stuff of groundbreaking storytelling, the script does charm, and the show is made all the more appealing by the work of the performers, particularly Ms. Sutherland, who finds ways to make whimsical neurosis both fresh and endearing. Two sequences when she works things out with her therapist are particularly well-crafted.
What makes both of the actors' work most remarkable, though, is their deftness in navigating the tricky melodic and linguistic twists and turns of Shen's nearly through-sung work, which has been beautifully orchestrated for a five piece ensemble by Bruce Coughlin. As a composer, Shen has been influenced by the artists like Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon (with whom Shen studied), and A Second Chance brims with swooping and circuitous melodies that tease--and sometimes taunt--the ear. Impressively, Shen's work never seems to be borrowing directly from any one composer and he has a musical voice that could evolve into something terrifically special, evidenced by a pair of jazz infused numbers that sparkle.
As a lyricist, Shen uses impounded and tricky rhyme schemes that call to mind the work of Stephen Sondheim (whose name is invoked one song), and though not always as adept as this latter songwriter, Shen does deliver some turns of phrase in song that surprise.
Directed by Jonathan Butterell, the show gleams with the kind of affluence that both Dan and Jenna enjoy in their respective Brooklyn and Greenwich Village existences. Scenic designer Robert Brill places only a trio of chairs on a highly polished light wood floor that's flanked and backed by three large screens, onto which artful black and white photographs are projected to indicate location (design by Rocco Disanti). Susan Hilferty's costumes both indicate character and add color to the otherwise physical space, as does Jen Schriever's lighting design. It's an elegant packaging for Shen's debut effort that, despite of some shortcomings, satisfies.
---- Andy Propst
A Second Chance plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.
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