How can anyone not love the decade of free love? The sixties, home to tie dye and loud patterns and the woo-woo culture of mysticism, psychedelia, and uninhibited intellectual and emotional expression, seem an auspicious setting for a romantic-comedy musical about a couple’s newly established freedom from the societal expectations of marriage. At least that’s what Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, produced by the New Group and now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, banks on. The reality, however, is that there’s plenty not to love in this lovefest.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is based on the 1969 film of the same title, with a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and music by Duncan Sheik. Married couple Bob (Joél Pérez) and Carol (Jennifer Damiano) go to a retreat where the big items on the itinerary are primal screams, chi-gong, massages, and trust falls. Newly intune with themselves and their feelings, they return to their more straitlaced and conservative couple friends, Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira), with less inhibitions to tie them down. When Bob has an affair while on a business trip and tells Carol, to Bob’s surprise, his wife is nonplussed and later has her own affair. The couple’s new open-relationship status upsets Ted and Alice’s relationship, with Alice withdrawing and Ted having an affair of his own until, ultimately, on a trip to Vegas, the foursome decides to, for a night, become a, well—foursome.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice proceeds like a production that is enamored with a theme but has no understanding of its intention. It moves sluggishly along, in scenes marked by abrupt transitions, with minimal character development. Bob and Carol go to the retreat and have their revelation, but the scenes, acting as a prologue to the story proper, imply an importance that isn’t matched in the execution; we know little of Bob and Carol and their relationship and have no stakes in it, though their radical shift in thinking about love is the impetus for the rest of the plot. The same holds true for Ted and Alice, who appear to be introduced solely as foils to Bob and Carol rather than a couple with whom we should invest equal, or at least comparable, interest. The progression of the couple’s relationships, and the lead-up to the final bedroom scene, can only be as compelling as the way the couples are initially set up.
And there is leeway in the form, that, above all, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a situational comedy in which the characters are subordinated to the sexual hijinx in the plot, so types like “lusty husband” and “uptight, repressed wife” may work well enough as vehicles for the humor. But the show also struggles in that respect, not committing enough one way or the other, to developed characters or intentional caricatures. The funniest line comes near the end—“First we’ll have an orgy, and then we’ll go see Tony Bennett?”—but the laughs are sparse throughout. Alice and Ted, granted more character than Bob and Carol in all of their joint neuroticism, have more opportunities to mine for laughs, and Zegen and Nogueira are fetching.
The music, performed with a live band onstage, led by Suzanne Vega on vocals, feels mostly incidental to the rest of the production. The songs, which, for the most part, are smooth and melodic, and also mostly forgettable, though Vega, with her buttery, comforting voice, fittingly recalls a cool sixties lounge singer. Numbers are awkwardly incorporated into scenes, and Scott Elliot’s direction positions the main goings on of the production at a distance from the musical performances. The characters stand, mid-conversation, and walk to mics onstage to perform, or take a place among the band in the back to sing a song. The result is a musical with abruptly plugged-in music that also fails to reveal anything new in the story or compel it forward. But to what end is the show’s play with the boundaries of its form—times when the characters usher people in the audience to the stage to be silent scene partners, right in the midst of the action, and times when the show’s awareness of its performance gets in the way of a more fluid execution—beyond gimmick and style is unclear.
There is, however, this matter of style—one could argue that the musical elements of the show are more in the service of aesthetic than function, though if a show is to present itself as an example of a form like a musical, the function must be tantamount to the aesthetic. Still, at the very least, the show does undoubtedly have style. Derek McLane’s stage design is, unfortunately, pretty barebones, a missed opportunity to show off the vibrancy of the decade, but the massive beaded curtain that waterfalls across the whole back wall of the theater, shimmering in rich hues courtesy of Jeff Croiter’s lighting design, provides a dazzling flair. The costumes, by Jeff Mahshie, are really the winners of the production, the flared skirts and pants, wild prints and garish statement necklaces, all of which provide a sense of playfulness and camp that the rest of the show could use.
In the end, though, what’s most frustrating about Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is that it’s unsure of what to make of its characters and what it’d have us think of them too. The final turn, which shows our characters’ ultimate dissatisfaction with their big move toward sexual freedom, rings a bit moralistic, a “Be careful what you wish for” moment, or could even pass for a conservative finger-wag at two couples who decided to opt for free love instead of holding to the institution of marriage. The irony, if meant to be the final comedic high note in the play, is boldly stated but ineffectual. And, as for the blanky drawn Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, from beginning to end of this production, I felt I wouldn’t know them from Adam.