‘A New Brain’ falls short of expectations

“This whole rigmarole is a joke I don’t understand,” lamented Gordo Schwinn, the main man of Cap & Bell’s production of A New Brain. Written by composer Bill Finn ’74 and directed by Casey York ’10, the musical went up this weekend at the Adams Memorial Theatre. Referencing his potentially fatal diagnosis, Gordo’s words also aptly describe the experience of being an audience member.

In a category of semi-autobiography with Jonathan Larson’s Tick Tick Boom!, the musical follows Gordo Schwinn (Lucas Bruton ’11), an aspiring Broadway musical writer stuck in a dead-end job composing rinky-dink songs for a children’s show frog. Gordo’s life is one day turned upside down when he collapses due to a brain malfunction. At the hospital, where the majority of the musical unfolds, Schwinn learns that he suffers from a genetic condition that requires potentially life-threatening brain surgery. Gordo’s mother, agent and lover, as well as a random homeless person, hospital personnel and a pastor narrate through song his journey from uninspired, pre-surgery wash-up to mildly inspired, post-surgery wash-up.

The story was muddled in the familiar way that lightly fictionalized autobiography often is: The author lets fraying plot fringes hang because that’s the way it “actually” happened, despite it making for a frustratingly porous story. Too many characters were undeveloped, flat, or too easily forgiven for what made them interesting in the first place. Roger (Richard McDowell ’09), who would “rather be sailing than come home to you,” (what a scathingly disinterested lover! Tell me more!) turns into a supportive partner to Gordo without any confrontation of his past inadequacies. The homeless lady (Ali Mitchell ’12) works as a symbolic reminder of the fact that “life is a rotten affair,” but she never seems to earn her hyper-meaningful role with microscopic access to the character’s inner lives. This uninvited guest who wants “not dollars but change” felt already done.

All of the play’s interest seemed to be directed toward the uncertainty of Gordo’s fate, but in this production the audience had no anxiety whatsoever as to whether or not he would survive. Especially with the knowledge of the show’s autobiographical roots, the shruggingly happy ending was inscribed from the beginning, and from this initial deflation the play never recovered.

Besides choosing a different show to begin with, I’m not sure there was anything the cast or the director could have done to mitigate the musical’s inherent issues, but they could have lent a helping hand by more clearly signaling how they wanted the audience to interpret the action. On the one hand, there is a song entitled “911 Emergency,” a mother expressing her private fears of her son’s death and the specter of life-threatening surgery. On the other, there are frogs in lime jumpsuits, songs about sponge baths and a hilariously self-involved brain surgeon. Were the serious themes of loss and uncertainty meant to cast a pall over the ridiculous humor, or was the wink-wink nudge-nudge comedy supposed to invigorate the grim? In any good true-to-life work, comedy and tragedy coexist, but in New Brain I didn’t know if they were bedfellows or colliding boomerangs.

Bruton’s mic was not loud enough throughout, a fact which mirrored the way that the musical seemed almost to conspire to downplay its own protagonist. Lying prostrate in a hospital gurney during most of the action, Bruton was a watcher of his own show, and his facial expressions weren’t big or expressive enough to make up for his handicap.

Kudos to Rob Gearity ’11 (Richard, the “nice nurse”) and Ben Kaplan ’11 (Dr. Jafar), who both brought the winsome glow of humorous character to the stage. During their scenes I could momentarily not care about all of the play’s perplexing inconsistencies and just laugh. Some all-cast moments lived up to their potential, too, specifically and only when the actors appeared to be buying what they were selling. “Eating Myself Up Alive,” a raucous ensemble dance number, progressed from energetic to ecstatic, earning its kitschy moves with the life the characters put into them.

The vocal and character talents of Lisa Sloan ’09 (Gordo’s mother) and McDowell were, as always, excellent, but with them as with Bruton especially, I found myself yearning for the phenomenal work I’ve seen all of them do in past productions rather than what I saw this time around. The play dulled rather than accentuated their luster, and for that I am inclined only to lament.