William Finn’s musical-comedies, such as Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Little Miss Sunshine, mix sardonic wit with unabashed heart. The Diversionary Theatre’s staging of the Off-Broadway show, A New Brain, contains those ingredients, plus it is autobiographical.
Gordon Michael Schwinn (Tom Zohar), a gay Jewish songwriter, writes tunes for a pompous host of a children’s television series, Mr. Bungee (Jon Lorenz). While having lunch at a restaurant with his friend and business associate, Rhoda (Megan Carmitchell), he abruptly collapses into a plate of ziti.
After being rushed to the hospital, Gordon learns that he is suffering from arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection between arteries and veins in the brain. Gordon has loving support from his mother, Mimi (Sandy Campbell), his boyfriend, Roger Delli-Bovi (Anthony Methvin), a kind nurse, Richard (Michael Parrott) and Rhoda, but he fears that the brain AVM will end his life.
In reality, Finn suffered the same congenital condition, and he thankfully survived brain surgery. Once he recovered, the Tony Award winner wrote all the songs and co-wrote the book with frequent Stephen Sondheim collaborator, James Lapine. The script occasionally suffers from being a little overlong, especially during the final section when certain conversations seem to overstay their welcome. What makes up for these issues is Finn’s distinct voice.
Since the plot is primarily sung-through, there needs to be tunes that can hold the audiences’ attention for almost two hours. Finn accomplishes this difficult task with melodies ranging from the uplifting “I Feel So Much Spring” to the pessimistic “A Lousy Day in the Universe.” The sole instrumentalist in the Diversionary’s interpretation is music director/keyboardist, Janie Prim. She is equally adept at both intimacy and lighthearted moments. The decision to not have other band members in ways makes A New Brain feel even more like a personal narrative, as opposed to an overproduced megahit.
The only misstep musically, is the brief tune, “911 Emergency.” There is an unusually melodramatic quality to Finn’s style during the relatively short sequence. This histrionic number is luckily followed by the more dramatically effective ballad, “I Have So Many Songs,” sung with heart-rending pathos from Zohar.
Gordon comes across as a slightly mellower Billy Eichner from “Parks and Recreation” and “Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street” combined with a Woody Allen persona. Though Gordon has a woe-is-me attitude, Zohar makes it clear that the artist values his close relationships with others. His performance balances comedic neurosis with tragedy.
A New Brain revolves around Gordon, but the other ensemble members hold their own with him. Methvin, Parrott, Carmitchell and Lorenz get at least a few scenes to display their vocal prowess, while creating fully developed characters.
Campbell especially evokes compassion portraying Gordon’s caring mother. It is hard not to have a lump in your throat when Campbell delivers on a song dealing with Schwinn’s complicated relationships with her son and ex-husband, “The Music Still Plays On.” Looking luminous in a dress from costume designer, Beth Connelly, she handles the number with beautiful grace.
Kudos goes to to director, Kim Strassburger, who never allows the material to turn into an overwhelmingly depressing piece nor morph into a corny made-for-television film. Under Strassburger, there is playfully energetic direction on Ron Logan’s tongue-in cheek set, allowing the ten actors to occasionally venture into the aisles of the small theatre. Perhaps having the most fun is Tanika Baptiste as Lisa, a homeless lady, who begs for money. During the song, “Change,” she asks several theatregoers to give her “pennies or nickels or dimes,” with hilarious results.
Although not a dance heavy piece, Michael Mizerany does sneak in humorous choreography including the finger snapping “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” the race themed “And They’re Off” and most impressively the tango duet “Brain Dead.” Mizerany uses Curtis Mueller’s sensual lighting for an unusually ironic fantasy scene.
Despite pacing issues, Strassburger, Finn and Lapine have made A New Brain a laugh-filled accomplishment with no shortage of unvarnished truth. Do not be put off by the heavy subject matter. The cathartic odyssey that Gordon goes on is worth taking.