In some ways it’s unfair to compare David Greig’s Midsummer (a play with songs) with Broadway’s Once. Midsummer, though it’s just now making its New York debut at the Clurman Theatre off-Broadway, predates the theatrical version of Once by about two years, and Once is a much more thoroughly musical affair, its plot turning on its lush, moody Celtic-contemporary score.
As unfair as it may be, however, it’s an inevitable match-up that audiences are bound to make. Whereas Midsummer is Scottish instead of Irish, the moody central couples are musically inclined in each, and the will-they-won’t-they romantic aspects of Midsummer, which conjure memories not just of Once but of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset film series, are undeniably similar.
Ultimately, it’s Midsummer that comes up short in comparison. The two-actor play (which features some brief instances of doubling) follows a petty conman named Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) who meets a beautiful lawyer named Helena (Cora Bissett) in a pub. The two hit it off and end up in bed, then end up debating how to move forward. Both are 35, and both are struggling internally with their ideas of romance and relationships. Bob, who acquires a large sum of money as a result of some shady dealings, is looking for a partner in crime to help him spend his loot in a single night, and Helena comes along for the ride. The two find themselves tied up at a bondage evening at a club (called Midsummer Night’s Cream); then they end up confronting their respective sets of emotional baggage. Along the way, there are some pleasant but unmemorable musical pitstops from composer Gordon McIntyre that seem to stop about as soon as they start, played on guitar and sung by the two leading actors.
If much of this sounds familiar, it comes across that way on stage. Bissett is charismatic, with her impish blonde pixie-cut and a pleasant singing voice, and Matthew Pidgeon is likable if somewhat subdued as Bob, but the two can’t turn this middle-of-the-road play into something more than it is: a standard-issue theatrical rom-com.
Most maddening is the production’s direct-address tone. Though it’s charming listening to Bob and Helena speaking about one another as the play begins, this device quickly tires, leaving an audience to wish for a good old-fashioned, meaty dialogue between the two lovers — something to bring a little depth to what ends up being an all too pleasantly surface-level romance. The show’s design, by Georgia McGuinness, which features a bedroom set where the couple plays out each scene, is largely effective and provides a pressure cooker for the play’s low-wattage sexual tension.
What’s ultimately lacking here is a strong central conflict. Though Bob and Helena are likable enough, there’s not enough at stake for either of them, leaving an audience to wonder, ultimately, why it should stick with these two for more than an hour and a half of moony descriptors, topped off by a weak deus ex machina that ties up what little conflict there is unconvincingly. There are worse evenings at the theatre, and this one at least features a charming cast and some intriguing elements, but it feels like Once all over again, but with less, to the point where it feels more like Never.