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Theater Review (NYC): Sessions

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Tucked away on East 24th Street is The Algonquin Theater, a duplex house that you would miss if you sneezed. That would be too bad, because it is a beauty. Sessions was produced in 2007 at Playwrights Horizons and has chosen to reincarnate here.

The talent in this show matches the theater, excellent working actors whom most of us don’t know well. The book and lyrics for this musical, however, don’t prove to be of equal weight.

The story is predictable in its construction. A therapist discovers his own life unraveling as he dispenses advice and care to his clients. One by one the characters reveal their dilemmas to us in song. Everyone has a breakthrough of one kind or another. The end.

The characters themselves are iconic – people who have given their power away to parents, ex-lovers, and spouses. There is nothing new here. To make it worse, the author keeps each character secluded in her or his own bubble, which makes this production more a series of one-person performances than an ensemble piece. This is a startling achievement because the setting for Sessions is group therapy. He chose a perfect setting in which characters could engage one another, and then wrote a story in which no one does.

The exception to this disconnect is the almost love affair between Dr. Peterson and one of his clients, Leila. When the play opens, Leila has left group therapy and is estranged from everyone except the doctor, to whom she returns for private sessions and romantic propositions. The problem with this relationship is that we never see why these two people are attracted to one another. I know more about Shrek and Fiona than I ended up knowing about these two. Why are they drawn to one another? Dr. Peterson is a nice guy who feels out of control around his client and frustrated by the state of his marriage. Normal enough. Leila looks great, but she has no life, no story. The only unique quality Leila possesses is that she dresses like a model. The other characters are dressed like ordinary folk, and, with the exception that every set of trousers is about 3” too long, this was a great touch. There is no reason why the Dr. Peterson and Leila shouldn’t be drawn to one another, but there is no reason why they should be either.

The music in this musical does little to assist the story. The actors each have a moment in song where they gaze up into the house and bare their souls, but because the songs are doing nothing to further the plot, and at times go so far as to baffle us, we are left uninspired.

The actors try, though. They work and work and work. You would be hard pressed to find a more sincere, talented, and dedicated ensemble. This includes the fine orchestra of one piano. That alone is reason enough to stay for the first act of Sessions. But the performers are hindered by the bland writing and helped not at all by the uninspired direction, which leaves each of them alone in a room full of people. That may be okay for a story idea, but it doesn’t work in a production.

Sessions – A New Musical. Book, Music and Lyrics by Albert M. Tapper, Directed by Thomas Cote.

With Al Bundonis, Natalie Buster, Maya Days, Scott Richard Foster, John Hickok, Ken Jennings, Liz Larsen, Kelli Maguire, Sky Seals.

Scenic Design b John McDermott, Costume Design by Michele Pasqua, Lighting Design by Brant Thomas Murray, Musical Arrangements and Orchstration by Seven Gorss; Presented by Algonquin Theater Productions and Ten Grand Productions, Inc. at the Algonquin Theater, 123 East 24th Street. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

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