The Black Monk @ Beckett Theater, New York

cast list
Julie Craig, Austin Pendleton, Scott Robertson, Elon Rutberg

directed by
Kevin Newbury
Though it’s nearly twice as long as this ninety minute chamber musical, the Royal Court’s production of The Seagull on Broadway feels eternally more lively than The Black Monk, Wendy Kesselman’s out-of-tune adaptation of Chekhov’s short story of the same name.

Though its melodies at first listen promise the fresh lightness of Adam Guettel’s score to The Light in the Piazza, they soon prove their insufficiency, plodding along in a rainy musical drizzle of repeated phrases, played with good intention by pianist Christopher Berg and cellist Arthur Cook, who have no individual part in the tunelessness of this insufferable musical score, which, with a little more variation, could have had a certain flair.
The plot in itself seems a difficult fit for the musical form. Returned to the man and his daughter Tanya who took him in when his parents mysteriously left him, young artist-student Andrei soon falls in love with the girl whom he considered a surrogate sister during his formative years, receiving the blessing of her father Igor.

Submerged in his work, Andrei is overcome by the influence of a mysterious apparition – a sort of quasi-sinister artistic fairy godfather called the Black Monk – whom only Andrei can see. Increasingly, Andrei becomes obsessed with his work, sacrificing his wife for the sake of his art. He’s sent away to a hospital for some time, but even the brief separation can’t stop him from taking matters into his own hands.

Lighting by D.M. Wood helps to illuminate the piece, making impressive use of shadow and light in concert with Charlie Corcoran’s simple wood-paneled set. Still, surrounded by an impressive production, the actors can’t make heads nor tails of this woebegone material. While Julie Craig and Elon Rutberg do just fine as romantic leads, Scott Robertson falls prey to schmaltzy overacting, and Austin Pendleton as the Black Monk is a whole other story.

Playing the monk as a sly subverter of wills, Pendleton’s namby-pamby portrayal makes him seem more like Mister Rogers in executioner’s garb than a truly threatening presence. To top it all off, his singing voice is far from passable. As an audience watches him strain for notes, instead of being allowed to sink into the world of his character, the focus is instead on crossing one’s fingers that he’ll hit the right notes in the score.

Though I’ve not read the short story that forms the basis for this adaptation, the musical nonetheless exhibits none of the vibrancy and emotional resonance that is typical of Chekhov’s work.

Instead we move from plot point to plodding plot point with little emotional compass as a guide. It’s clear that Wendy Kesselman (whose adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank played Broadway) feels passionately about the material. But if she’s got a great Chekhovian musical locked up in her tortured soul, longing to break free, this one unfortunately falls flat.

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