The Playgoer: REVIEW: SCORE

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Friday, June 03, 2005


directed by Anne Bogart
starring Tom Nelis
at New York Theatre Workshop

When asked to assess Leonard Bernstein's conducting, Igor Stravinsky reportedly once said, "He dances a good symphony." Given Bernstein's famous podium theatrics, no wonder Anne Bogart--a director concerned with movement above all else--would take that remark as a dare in her new installment of one-person shows profiling celebrity artists. (Others have depicted Orson Welles, Virginia Woolf, and director Robert Wilson.) As Bernstein, Tom Nelis offers a gymnastic 90 minutes, constantly flowing and gyrating in patterns familiar to anyone who remembers watching closeups of the maestro on PBS. That Nelis executes this relentless and intricate choreography while rattling off pages of Bernstein's own writing and speeches is a marvel of human endurance. The audience's endurance of Bogart's work here, though, is another matter.

Part of the problem is that among Bernstein's many grand aspirations, playwriting was not one of them. Bogart and her credited adaptor Jocelyn Clarke have not succeeded in fashioning a dramatically compelling text out of lectures and reminiscences which were probably much more engaging coming from Bernstein himself. As he showed in his famous televised Harvard lectures and Young Peoples Concerts, Bernstein performed himself brilliantly in his sententious pontifications. Nelis doesn't at all capture the self-conscious grandeur of this and I suppose he and Bogart would scorn such impersonation. But without that, we get the words without the soul. Bogart seems to enjoy divorcing words from meaning, and words from gesture as Nelis's body carries on its own dialogue against the text throughout. What gets lost is not only Bernstein's unique personality, but basically any personality at all.

Outside of the extended philosophizing, this postmodern performance text surprisingly takes on a tired biopic format: highlights from a great man's life. (We get obligatory stories of studying with Koussevitzky and making his surprise debut with the Philharmonic, for instance.) And since Bogart & co. have confined themselves to Bernstein's own texts, we get only the self-aggrandizing versions of those highlights. Nowhere , for instance, do we glimpse the painfully pompous Bernstein of Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic or the (barely) closeted bi-sexual Bernstein of backstage lore. "Life is juicy!" goes a Bernstein-ism Nelis constantly repeats. But where's that life on stage?

It struck me at some point during the show, how many people know who Leonard Bernstein is anymore? (I mean, as a person, not just as a name on their West Side Story CD.) Luckily for Score, that's not an issue for the grey-haired subscribers to New York Theatre Workshop that night. But I wonder what Bogart hoped to achieve for NYTW's downtown hipsters with no previous context. Nelis tries to introduce Bernstein to us in the beginning with some strained audience participation (where Nelis "calls on" us as if we are his students). But it takes a lot more than raised house lights and Tom Nelis's charm to really engage us in conversation with such a complex and multilayered dead man.

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