The new musical Leaving Eden tells two parallel stories. It takes a new look at the extra-biblical legend of Lilith, Adam’s rebellious first wife. And it presents an original fable of a troubled threesome in the age of surrogacy and third-wave feminism. Susanna Wolk smoothly directed a superb cast in a brief run at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF). Backed by an excellent four-piece rock band, the production aced Jenny Waxman’s smart lyrics and Ben Page’s interesting and accessible music.
However, the two strands don’t connect in a way that makes sense, and the modern-day story fails to hold together. Modern Adam (Azudi Onyejekwe) parallels with Ancient Adam (Ian Ward) only in that he, with his partner Modern Lily (Janet Krupin), want to have a baby. Modern Lily resembles Ancient Lilith (Sarah-Anne Martinez) in no discernible way, aside from assertiveness.
Lily can’t bear a child because an unnamed health problem has necessitated a hysterectomy. She eventually hits upon the idea of asking Eve (Gabrielle McClinton) – an old friend and lover of both hers and Adam’s, who has had something to do with their estrangement – to be a surrogate mother. That’s weird enough in itself, but hey, these are modern people in modern times. The big mystery is that when success arrives – Eve getting pregnant – Adam gets cold feet and abandons them both.
Is that supposed to illustrate male weakness? It’s perplexing, because up until then Modern Adam has been a supportive, loving partner. Nor does it link with the Lilith story. There, Adam banishes Lilith because she’s developed a mind of her own and refuses to knuckle under to his dominance, nor to blindly worship an unseen God.
Lilith is a figure descended from ancient demonic legends. She first appeared re-imagined as Adam’s first wife in a satirical Hebrew work from the eighth century. Aware that she’s been created not from Adam’s rib but, just like him, from the earth, she thus assumes she and he are equal. They even battle over who should be on top during sexual intercourse. Waxman and Page make much of all this, creating powerful musical numbers. (Slickly staged, the scenes and songs get a valuable assist from that wonderful manifestation of modern drama, an Intimacy Director.) The show’s Lilith strand has a number of effective elements like this, both serious and funny.
Their differences having finally grown insurmountable, Adam banishes Lilith from Eden. But like the feminist icon she has become, she won’t stay gone. A sharp pain in Adam’s side becomes Eve, his new and more obedient (for now) wife. She’s played by McClinton as the same Eve from the modern story. Though the character passes gracefully between the two strands, I couldn’t discern a dramatic reason for there to be just one Eve but two Adams and two Liliths. The Eve storylines are no more in parallel, or in sync, than those of the other dualities.
Admirably, given the story’s weaknesses, the cast gave fully committed performances, each shining in a different way. Ward’s Ancient Adam convincingly evolved from clean-cut, wide-eyed delight in the pleasures of Eden to rough, paternalistic tyrant with a frightening edge. He sang with consistent strength and wonderful diction. In tandem, Martinez’s firebrand Lilith blossomed from an innocent babe-in-the-woods to an independent-minded woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to demand it. She modulated her vocals from silky-smooth in quieter moments to prickly and brash in the throes of extreme emotion.
A ladder cleverly stood in for God and the yearning for the divine; with nothing else but one another to play off of, the pair made a thoroughly convincing First Couple.
Krupin made Lily, the meatiest of the modern-day roles, a compelling 21st-century figure. Though equipped with a strong personality, Lily is understandably lost amidst the confusions of family planning – and modern adulthood in general. Krupin brought a clear yet conversational approach to her musical numbers as well as her scenes, and had me rooting for Lily all the way. Onyejekwe and McClinton both gave strong performances in roles that served more as foils to Lily than as fully developed personalities. All the more frustrating that the story of these three struggling moderns neither gels on its own nor reflects meaningfully on their legendary counterparts.