Examining the songs that make up "Closer Than Ever" through the eyes of, say, an alien anthropologist, one might conclude that contemporary men and women have made a royal mess of their relationships. Hardly anyone can stay in love, cope with the baby or deal with getting older, as the clever, often brittle songs in this revue would have it.
"Closer Than Ever," which opened a three-week, post-off-Broadway run at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater Wednesday, is not, strictly speaking, a revue, but rather a collection of songs by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire. It's five singers -- one of them doubling as the adept piano player -- and 24 songs, organized loosely around the themes of love, loss and parenthood.
Maltby and Shire, who authored "Baby" and the wonderful "Starting Here, Starting Now" that played at Arena 12 years ago, portray the modern adult as buffeted by new and possibly unmeetable demands on intimacy, equality and health. A woman is tired of being dumped by men who want to stay her friend ("I'm tired of being the greatest girl any man has met," sings Sally Mayes). A married middle-aged man (Louis Padilla) pines for the love affair he did not have because he's "One of the Good Guys." One two-career couple (Mayes and Craig Wells) battle politely as each begs the other to "maybe, watch the baby," and another (Mayes and Padilla) greet their marriage with the pledge that, since both have been divorced previously, each will be "the first to be second." And they're all driven nuts by "The Sound of Muzak" (and who isn't?).
The tone is sardonic, bittersweet and -- sometimes -- sappy. In "What Am I Doin' " Padilla moons about, besotted with love, wondering why he is up on a roof. That is one song that should have stayed in the trunk. "Fathers of Fathers" is another number that doesn't quite click, with the three men singing a paean to fatherhood that is heavy on sentiment and short on wit.
Neither sex is given the glory, but there is a subtle suggestion that women are more to blame for this sorry state of affairs than men. In "Life Story," a divorcee (Meg Bussert) sings of her "liberated marriage" in which she and her husband shared the housework and "understood each other's feelings right up to the day of our sensible divorce." She looks back on the life she made carving a career as a freelance writer and raising a son alone, but concludes in the end that her "Twilight Zone" marriage to a drug-taking goof-off was "no worse than a life alone." There are slightly patronizing references in other songs to women "finding themselves" as though they were out buying a hat, as when one husband sings in the title song, "Thank God when you found your new you, I loved her too."
Men take some bashing, to be sure, such as when the fabulously talented Mayes sings of her mate who is just "not there," or Bussert discourses (terrifically) on the animal kingdom, during which she sings of "the male's inflated worth" and points out that many species "meet only to mate and are never seen again." A suburban husband (Wells) reveals that his "secret" way of dealing with the stresses of broken-down cars, misbehaving teenage children and a wife who can't find herself is to throw up every morning and then soldier on.
And they all, male and female, fall victim to the fitness craze, valiantly standing off the ravages of time with narcissistic and enervating exercise, described in a cleverly operatic quartet called "There's Nothing Like It." "How we wish we were you watching us," they trill at one point. Slowly it dawns on one of them that not only is Jane Fonda thin, but "Peter is thin, and Hank was thin/They're just thin! And they've always been!" It is all, they cry loudly, a lot of horse manure (only they use the more graphic barnyard term).
Mayes, a pouty, curly-haired blonde, unleashes a voice made in musical-comedy heaven and the acting talent to match, and Bussert compliments her nicely with a lyrical voice and the maturity to handle some of the show's more pensive numbers. Wells and Padilla are more superficial, although Wells captures the sweet thoughts of a loving son in "If I Sing," and the yearning yuppie who will fare better in love "Next Time." Padilla's uncanny tendency to sound like Mandy Patinkin (it makes sense to learn from the program that he has understudied him in another production) was distracting. Pianist Patrick Scott Brady, who along with bassist Robert D. Renino drives the music, also turns out to be an adept singer.
Of the many cultural signposts found in the lyrics, one seemed to recur with noticeable regularity. I think we can infer that either Maltby or Shire, or both, have put kids through college, because it is rare to find so many songs that mention the high cost of tuition. The anthropologist would notice that.
Closer Than Ever, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr.; music by David Shire. Directed by Maltby. Musical staging by Marcia Milgrom Dodge; musical direction and vocal arrangements by Patrick Scott Brady; set by Philipp Jung; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Joshua Starbuck; stage manager, Karen Moore. With Meg Bussert, Sally Mayes, Louis Padilla and Craig Wells. At the Kreeger Theater through Sept. 29.