By TULIS McCALL
In this astonishing musical at the Public Theatre there are three Alisons (also the name of the author). There is Small Alison (Sydney Lucas), Medium Alison (Alexandra Socha) and grown up Alison (Beth Malone). Each actor gives us much needed information on the predicament: How does Alison of the present day figure out who her father Bruce (Michael Cerveris) was? She has the facts, but piecing them together is proving problematic.
Alison is a graphic artist (as is Alison Bechdel who wrote the graphic novel on which this show is based) who recalls her life visually. For each memory there is a corresponding visual on which she can lay caption after caption after caption. This is a sweeping iconic story that on the surface is about being a gay woman growing into herself, but is in every other way about the myth of childhood and how we all spend a good amount of time wandering around inside our own.
If you are expecting a “musical” with the snappy tunes that you walk out humming – think again. This is music similar in style to Ms. Tesori’s previous production Caroline or Change. It is haunting and wild and out of control – kind of like life.
Small Alison welcomes us with a recurring plea – that her father stop what he is doing a pay attention to her. It is a request she will carry through her life. But her father is not only peripatetic, he is living a lie – he is a gay man in a straight man’s life. That life is filled chock-a-block with activities. The house in which he and his family live is a museum piece, and everyone is a curator whether they like it or not. There is also a teaching position at the local high school. And finally there is the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home – or, you guessed it, “The Fun Home”.
As Alison goes through her life and Ms. Malone is an excellent observer of her own past, the hopes and mistakes and embarrassments all assume equal weight. Her memory is an equal opportunity tool. Her fantasies about life as the Brady Bunch, the days when the kids played in the coffins at the funeral home, her first rebellion about wearing a dumb stupid dress, her first love affair in college, and the night her mother talked to her about how days and days and days can add up to a ruined life.
The common thread throughout all this is Bruce, and here the writing and Mr. Cerveris’ extraordinary skills become nearly symphonic as we see him being overwhelmed by the rabbit hole that is pulling him down and down. The final car ride with Alison and Bruce’s final moments on this planet are seductive and shattering. In these last moments both Cerveris and Malone achieve a partnership that is exquisite.
Lest I play the sad note too heavily, let me assure you there is an abundance of humor in this show. Ms. Bechdel does not hesitate to put herself or anyone else in the spotlight of the ridiculous. Her writing, beautifully translated by Kron and Tesori, is full of self-examination and whimsy. Bechdel never loses her innocence even as she becomes an adult. As a result I saw my own relationship with my parents and siblings up there and felt on a visceral level the tsunami of emotions that such contemplation brings.
By being willing to step down deep into her own life without fanfare or obfuscation, Ms. Bechdel opens the door for us to follow along. That is what good writing is all about. We want to be allowed into the basement, and we want the door at the top of the stairs to remain unlocked. We want adventure and a degree of safety all tied up in a bow.
This production does that and more. This production soars and will be one of those iconic theatre events that will fall under the enviable rubric of “Did you see THAT production???”
Hurry, hurry, hurry on over.
Music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the book by Alison Bechdel; directed by Sam Gold; sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Kai Harada; projections by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg; wig design by Paul Huntley; music director, Chris Fenwick; orchestrations by John Clancy; music contractor, Antoine Silverman; choreography by Danny Mefford; production stage manager, Lisa Dawn Cave; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; general manager, Steven Showalter; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village, (212) 967-7555, publictheater.org. Through Nov. 17. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Griffin Birney (Christian), Michael Cerveris (Bruce), Roberta Colindrez (Joan), Noah Hinsdale (John), Judy Kuhn (Helen), Sydney Lucas (Small Alison), Beth Malone (Alison), Joel Perez (Roy/Others) and Alexandra Socha (Medium Alison).