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Photo Credit :: Company
Arts & Entertainment
Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theater
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
January 9, 2007 
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By now, more than thirty years after the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, entire dissertations have been written on the cipher which is Bobby, the protagonist at the center of Sondheim’s examination of urban relationships. Is he or isn’t he (sssh – gay)– or is he actually neutered?

In his most current incarnation, as played by the extremely talented Raul Esparza, Bobby appears to be suffering from something similar to what the character Larry says about his wife Joanne, “a conceited woman with no self-esteem.” Bobby is obviously physically attractive, as well as emotionally attuned to his friends’ needs, and yet he often appears as uncomfortable in his own skin as his friend Amy who believes she’s not worthy of marriage.

Then again, given the sour depiction of the institution of marriage in George Furth’s book, it’s not likely anyone would happily walk down the aisle. Written at the end of the Sixties, and first produced in 1970, Company chronicles the type of marriages dissected in the narrative worlds of the three Johns: Cheever, Updike and O’Hara. And the current production would be considerably improved were the context of these restrictive marriages realized more completely. It would be useful to be reminded of how few doors were open to women married before the age of feminism—as well as, for that matter, how the mere mention of the word homosexual could clear a room. In a film such as Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, the plight of women and homosexuals during the Fifties in America was made clear by the brilliant art and set direction. Here, at the Barrymore, we get men and women outfitted in various shades of black, posing on Lucite furniture—which does little to reveal era, and, therefore, distances us from mustering up any empathy for characters who come across as shallow and whiny.

Fortunately, there is Sondheim’s music. Music and lyrics by Sondheim, both of which are brought front and center by the director John Doyle’s conceit of having the actors play all the instruments. Admittedly, this idea worked better for Sweeney Todd, where there is a far more propulsive narrative—and in fact, there are times during this production when the parading of instruments and musicians proves dangerously distracting.

Without a doubt, Raul Esparza has a beautiful voice which does wonders with “Being Alive,” and Heather Laws rips into “Getting Married Today” with a manic ferocity designed to insure that hers is the version best remembered for years to come. But at its best, this production most resembles a concert version of Company, something one might have expected to see at Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center—or on PBS during a pledge drive.

As for the question of whether Bobby is or isn’t (gay), it might do well to remember that Company was first produced barely a year after Stonewall, arguably the birth of gay liberation. So it’s not surprising that Bobby remains locked in the closet—even as he yearns for “someone to need you too much, someone to crowd you with love.” That much remains the same, what E.M. Forster meant when he wrote, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon,”—and for those of us in the audience for this production, we might wish only that those connections were stronger.