Eight Russian poets, who came to flower before the Revolution and then, after it, withered, went mad, were forcibly silenced or killed themselves in despair, are the characters in "The Beautiful Lady," the new musical by Elizabeth Swados at the New Playwrights' Theatre.
But the real subject of the show -- the beautiful lady in question -- is poetry itself. Swados wants to celebrate its integrity, its unpredictability, its fierce independence and the bounty it brings to the soul even in times of famine. And that, I suspect, is why this ambitious, often imaginative musical, which opened Wednesday, remains curiously uninvolving. The poets themselves are getting short shrift. The art, not the artists, commands Swados' ultimate allegiance.
There is a strange abstract quality to the evening, which presumably deals with the pain and ecstasy of living, breathing poets. Not all of them are particularly well known on our shores. But in their day -- and more particularly in The Stray Dog cabaret in St. Petersburg, which is the setting for "Beautiful Lady" -- they enjoyed a notoriety on a par with today's rock stars.
I wish I could say we get to know them better. To the extent that "Beautiful Lady" lets us in on their individual histories, they are a colorful, if cursed, lot, given to flamboyant poses and reckless liaisons. Even as their souls are throbbing with the passion of doomed romantics in a world blanketed with snow, they are breaking the furniture or tossing shots of vodka into one another's faces. They've all embarked on an emotional roller-coaster ride, screaming as much for the spectators on the ground as for the giddy thrill of it.
The musical is presided over by the proprietor of The Stray Dog, who, as Olga Merediz plays her, seems to be a Slavic synthesis of Gypsy Rose Lee and Auntie Mame. Merediz provides some introductory narration and an explanatory note here and there, but "Beautiful Lady" is made up primarily of songs by Swados and, to a much lesser degree, the words of the actual poets (translated by Paul Schmidt). The poems begin to let us into the hearts and minds of their creators, but it is characteristic of the musical that when one of the poets does take to the stage of The Stray Dog to recite his work, Swados frequently intervenes with a song of her own.
With their distinct echoes of Russian folk music and their insistent rhythms, her melodies are far more beguiling than those she contributed to the recently departed "Doonesbury." But her lyrics lack a passion worthy of her tumultuous subjects. They tend, in fact, to put distance between the characters and their feelings. There is more than a touch of Brecht to the proceedings, when it would seem that a touch of Brel is really called for.
The first act builds to a climax with the violent intrusion into The Stray Dog of the futurist poets Vladimir Mayakovsky (Stephen Crain) and Velimir Khlebnikov (Howard Shalwitz), who spew forth their radical manifesto for change. Out with the old poetry of heartsickness, fatalism and ennui. Instead, they extol -- their voices sputtering like machine-gun fire -- "the vision of broken glass, rusty nails, horseshoes, rags and paper bags, steam engines, electricity, carbon dioxide, calluses and blisters."
If an artistic revolution is under way, so is the October Revolution of 1917, which Swados, who doubles as director, stages within the confines of the cafe'. Tables are upended; chairs piled high in a pillar that will come crashing down, like the czarist regime itself. The white tablecloths will be used as hoods to cover the heads of the wealthy patrons, marked for a slow-motion death before the firing squad. And the drums beat furiously.
The second act takes place 10 gray years later. The Stray Dog has been redubbed The People's Palace. The heady future that was to be is still a distant promise. In the new regime, poetry is suspect, and poets once idolized are viewed as arrested adolescents, who had better fall in line, or else. Food is in short supply, but fear is abundant. "Where Do You Hide a Poem?" sing Anna Akhmatova (Karen Trott) and Marina Tsvetaeva (Deborah Jean Templin). ("In a toilet? That'll spoil it" is, alas, one of the less felicitous lyrics occasioned by their desperation.)
One by one, the musical charts the sorry ends of the various poets, nourished now only by chunks of brown bread and remembrances of their heyday. As they die -- from starvation, neglect, suicide -- they sit down on chairs. The remaining cast members then lift up the chairs and place them on the cafe' tables. Spurned artists, you see, are being transformed into monuments for a later age.
It should be a moving finale -- the final irony in lives that flew, as most artists' lives do, against the grain. It isn't, however; and the simplest explanation is that we have never come to know Swados' characters as people. They are abstracts of a violent time, symbols of waste and want, supporting players in a drama that is more concerned with the grandeur and misery of poetry.
The performers supply what human dimensions they can, but "Beautiful Lady" doesn't make it easy. Still, I admired Trott's fine-boned elegance, even in squalor, as Akhmatova. Swados has given her the show's loveliest song, the plaintive paean to survival, "Whatever the Hand May Deal," and she delivers it with the quiet strength that, indeed, will allow her to endure, while her peers perish. As Sergei Yesenin, the blond country poet avid for adulation (he later married Isadora Duncan), Gordon Paddison has an explosive presence, and the actor artfully transmutes the craziness of youth into the madness of the asylum.
The production -- one of New Playwrights' biggest, with 15 actors and a four-piece orchestra -- continues to mark a rise in the professional standards that NPT's new artistic director, Arthur Bartow, established with the season's opener, "Burial Customs." You will, in fact, admire much of "The Beautiful Lady" -- from its scope to its originality. But I doubt you will warm up to it. Swados ultimately leaves an audience on the outside of a fascinating society, looking in. THE BEAUTIFUL LADY. Book by Elizabeth Swados and Paul Schmidt. Music, lyrics and direction by Swados. Musical direction, Michael Sirotta; scenery and lighting, Lewis Folden; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; sculpture, Paul Falcon. With Stephen Crain, Natasha Lutov, Olga Merediz, Daniel Noel, Gordon Paddison, Howard Shalwitz, Deborah Jean Templin, Karen Trott. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Dec. 30.