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Two views of "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
Paulanne Simmons
Edward Rubin

Paulanne Simmons

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice are at it again

"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
Directed by Scott Elliott
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42 Street
Opened March 15, 2020
Tickets: $57- $127
Tuesday – Friday at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm and 7:30pm, Sundays at 7:30pm through 2/9; Wednesdays at 2pm beginning 2/12 Closes March 22, 2020
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 16, 2020

Quentin Tarantino, director of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," considers the 1969 film "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" the best sex comedy of its era. The film focuses on how two affluent, thirtyish couples deal with New Age philosophy and the sexual revolution. They dabble with infidelity, confession, forgiveness and finally an attempted orgy. The film may have been cutting edge fifty years ago, but that same subject matter in its new musical adaptation from the New Group, with a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, seems as appealing as a hangover.

The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by Qunicy Jones, although there were also excerpts from Handel’s Messiah and Jackie DeShannon singing Bert Bacharach and Hall David’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” The musical has a score by Duncan Sheik, with lyrics by Sheik and Amanda Green. The songs resemble uninspired lounge music or watered-down Bert Bacharach. They are pleasant enough until they get really boring. The lyrics are remarkably generic and uninspired.

The score is sung by the actors (who play instruments) and sometimes members of the onstage band. Often the actors sing with mic in hand. It seems director Scott Elliott wants to tell us what we are watching is more a play with music than a traditional musical. His efforts are unnecessary, as the songs neither advance the plot nor express character. For the most part, they serve as musical commentary on the action.

The movie featured Natalie Wood as Carol, Robert Culp as Bob, Elliot Gould as Ted and Dyan Cannon as Alice, earning Gould and Canon nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress. The musical features Joél Pérez as Bob, Jennifer Damiano as Carol, Michael Zegen as Ted and Ana Noguueira as Alice. Capable actors, regrettably, they take their roles so seriously it’s hard to imagine the show is a satire of the culture of the late 60s.

In fact, it often seems nobody involved with this production is entirely confident of what they’re doing (except for constantly reconfiguring the one piece of furniture on stage: a couch with two ottomans). When characters have as little self-awareness as the two couples in this musical, they can either be tragic or funny. In this show they are neither. The funny lines don’t land, and the pathos is always out-of-reach and unarticulated.

Apparently, Sherman thought the show needed a unifying element. Thus, Suzanne Vega is the narrator, an ethereal creature who is also the retreat leader, the temptress, a songstress and a deliverer of mics. And audience members pitch in to become confidants, participants in group therapy and dance partners.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) they never get to be part of the orgy. [Simmons]

Edward Rubin

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Opened on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 in New York City at the Romulus Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street, New York City.
Closed by Governor Cuomo’s Order on Sunday, March 12, 2020 due to Coronavirus.
Book by Marc Sherman, Music, Lyrics, Orchestrations by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Amanda Green, Musical Staging by Kelly Devine, and Directed by Scott Elliot.
Running Time 1 hours and 45 minutes with no intermission.
www.thenewgroup.org, or call 917-935-4242.
Reviewed by Edward Rubin

Surprise of all surprises, the 1969 movie “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” thanks to The New Group and Pershing Square Signature Center, is back in the news again—this time, not as a film but as a play with music. Cleverly directed by Scott Elliott, from a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, the musical has dialogue and locations nearly identical to those in the film.

Though some fifty years have flown by, I remember seeing Paul Mazursky’s film when it first opened. I also remember that it starred Robert Culp, Elliot Gould (Barbra Streisand’s husband at the time), Dyan Cannon (the recently divorced wife of Cary Grant), and the ill-fated Natalie Wood.

With a sexy (for the late sixties) ad campaign depicting all four characters in bed, a headline that read “Consider the Possibilities” – some newspapers would not run this ad – and a titillating R-rated story which dealt with infidelity and wife swapping, the movie—the number 5 moneymaking hit of the year—rang up some 31 million dollars at the box office.

The picture garnered 4 Oscar nominations, with Gould and Cannon nominated in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress category, while the film got nods for Cinematography and Original Screenplay. Despite all the hullabaloo, nobody took home an Oscar that night.

To add a bit of perspective, and a wee whiff of the times, “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,” the number-one hit of 1969 thanks to the star-powering good looks of Newman and Redford, brought in some 102 million smackaroos.

To compare and contrast B & C & T & A the play with the film (something I always do with a play that has its beginning on screen), I watched the flick online. Not surprisingly, considering how far we have come during the past fifty years, I found the film dated, mostly boring, and not at all sexy.

Suffice to say, the New Group’s musical, with five young and accomplished, easy-on-the-eyes actors (Jennifer Damiano, Ana Nogueira, Joél Pérez, Michael Zegen, Suzanne Vega), and a small band, each giving their all on small living room-sized stage, fares better than the film.

The most enjoyable part of the play, which offers a respite from the still-dated story, is the addition of the beautifully voiced, band-backed, guitar-strumming singer Suzanne Vega. Delivering most of Duncan Sheik’s and Amanda Green’s fourteen Burt Bacharach-like, sweet-sounding songs. Vega occasionally leaves the band, which was situated at the rear of the set, to play a bartender, a tennis pro, and a shrink.

The most fun, as strange as this sounds, is in watching the actors change the configuration of the furniture (e.g., a couch that turns into a bed), as the play’s locations move from the retreat, to Bob’s and Carole’s home, to a restaurant, and eventually to a Las Vegas Hotel.

Both the play and film open with documentary filmmaker Bob (Joél Pérez} and his wife Carol (Jennifer Damiano), both somewhere in their thirties, attending an Esalen-type retreat in Big Sur where emotional honesty is encouraged. Also, on the menu at this retreat is an around-the-clock regimen of Tai Chi, meditation, Rolfing, consciousness raising, and primal screaming therapy, the latter which gets Carol screaming.

Upon returning to their upscale Los Angeles digs, feeling newly enlightened, Bob and Carol begin to apply the retreat’s principles of free love and complete openness to their own marriage. Wanting to share their new-found wisdom with their best friends Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira), they encourage them to loosen up and come grips with their true feelings.

For Bob, spouting the retreat’s mantra, this means that everyone should “feel” their emotions rather than intellectualizing them. As scared as Ted’s and Alice’s feelings are about Bob’s and Carol’s new-age ideas, they are also, as they sing, “terrified of missing out” on the action.

During the course of the play, we follow the couples as they examine their so-called true feelings within their own marriages, as well as their friendships with each other. Of course, sex enters, somewhat unexpectedly, into the picture with a couple of one-night stands for three of the four, all of whose details are heatedly discussed, albeit innocently, among the group.

The highlight of the play is a trip to Las Vegas, ostensibly to see Tony Bennett perform. It is here that both couples, in the same bed, nude and under the sheets, contemplate making love with each other’s spouse. The original film script did not indicate if the couples had sex or not. However, I did read that Mazursky wanted the actors to improvise the scene. While Culp, it is said, was ready to go all the way, the other three actors, led by Wood, decided against going there. That ambivalence, as one critic noted, “nicely permeates the film’s conclusion,” as it does for the play.

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