I can’t imagine what I was doing back in 1992 that was so important that I missed the original production of Falsettos, William Finn and James Lapine’s bracing modern musical about a family feeling its way painfully through challenging times. This show, which was born out of two separate one-acts, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, was pioneering in its depiction of the non-traditional family that many who have grown up on Modern Family simply take for granted.
The show opens in 1979 and we meet the tightly wound Marvin, who has left his wife Trina and son Jason for a sexually dynamic man, Whizzer. Trina becomes a patient of Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, who falls in love with her. Jason, who is showing dangerous signs of becoming too isolated—his favorite pastime is playing high-speed games of chess by himself—becomes a patient of Mendel’s as well. Trina and Mendel marry. Eventually, Marvin and Whizzer break up, but they reunite in time for Whizzer to be diagnosed with AIDS, in the terrifying early days of the disease, when so pitifully little was known about its transmission and treatment. One of the most endearing details in the show is Jason’s attachment to Whizzer, despite the fact that he broke up his parents’ home; Jason won’t see the psychiatrist until Whizzer tells him it’s okay.
The show’s original director, James Lapine, also helms the current revival at the Walter Kerr Theater, which is well-cast and boasts an unerring pace. The set, by David Rockwell, is made up of building blocks that the cast reconfigures at various points, set against a backdrop of Manhattan. The characters’ neuroses pile up the way they do in an old Woody Allen film. (I remember seeing Allen’s Manhattan in 1979, and thinking how foolish its characters were, worrying obsessively over their writing careers while juggling extramarital romances; I moved to New York in 1982 and eventually found myself worrying obsessively over my writing career while juggling extramarital romances, which is exactly what I get for being a know-it-all smartass from the West Coast.)
In Falsettos, Christian Borle, with his gimlet eyes and comic-book looks, finds the right pitch as the malcontent Marvin, Brandon Uranowitz is an ideal, simpatico Mendel, and Anthony Rosenthal is spot-on as the wildly precocious Jason. Stephanie J. Block, a slyly observant actress with a terrific voice, has a triumph as Trina, making the most out of her Act One showstopper, “I’m Breaking Down.” Tracie Thomas and Betsy Wolfe are effective as the lesbian couple who befriends the family in the second act, although I might have preferred that they were a little less obviously TV-genic. I have some reservations about the casting of Andrew Rannells, who made Whizzer so smugly self-centered in the first act that it was a little hard to divine the other characters’ affection for him. This becomes more of an issue in the second act, when Whizzer becomes ill because the humanity that the character needs to convey underneath his glibness simply hasn’t been set up. I admired this revival of Falsettos very much, and you probably couldn’t ask for a much more proficient production. But as it went on, I occasionally longed for a little more gravitas.