Well, it’s something of a hard day’s night in Bethesda, where Round House Theatre is offering up the world premiere of “I’ll Get You Back Again,” a play set in a world of burned-out rock-and-rollers that is one drumstick short of satisfying.
Make that two, or even three. Something more enriching and fully convincing might yet be excavated from playwright Sarah Gancher’s story of the reunion of a ’60s rock group and the troubled daughter of one of its members. But some serious deficiencies first have to be addressed, regarding the awkwardly plotted and windy exposition of this overwritten comedy-drama — as well as what I’ll call the “Famous Artist Problem.”
This issue arises in movies and plays in which a fictional character is presented as, say, a great painter. Yet the work we’re shown that’s meant to illustrate their genius ends up looking — oy vey — as if it should hang on a motel wall. All credibility fades disconcertingly away. In “I’ll Get You Back Again,” the Famous Artist Problem is rooted in the assertion that the play’s aging musicians, who went by the name the Pisces, are borderline rock legends.
Then these vintage rockers — played by Dan Manning, Michael Anthony Williams, and the eternally young-at-heart David Patrick Kelly — are required to strap on electric guitars and man the mics and drum kit and perform one of the thoroughly uninspired songs created for the production by Rick Sims. And — oy vey — there goes any illusion of authenticity.
The Pisces, we’re told, “opened for the Rolling Stones in ‘73.”
I don’t think so.
So where can “I’ll Get You Back Again” go from there? Although the music really isn’t the crux of the play — directed by Rachel Chavkin of Broadway’s well-received, recently shuttered “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” — an audience never invests strongly in any of the characters. That’s in part because Gancher doesn’t satisfactorily define the stakes in “I’ll Get You Back Again”: who, exactly, it’s about and what consequences we’re supposed to be waiting for.
The evening begins with Renata Friedman’s Chloe — unhappy daughter of a member of the Pisces who years before died of an overdose — delivering the portion of her standup comedy act in which she spews profane venom at audience members who don’t seem to appreciate her brilliance. It’s not clear that poor, drowning Chloe has made the right career choice, a possibility explored at extravagant length after she has arrived at the Berkeley, Calif. home of her ill uncle (Kelly’s Carl) and his loyal Pisces band mate (Williams’s Melvin). They’re rehearsing for a reunion concert with another surviving band member, Manning’s Coyote Dan, as well as with Chloe, standing in on bass guitar for her dad, the deceased Jimmy (played in flashbacks by Brian Reisman).
The interjection of scenes of Jimmy playing other unmemorable songs with the younger versions of Melvin (Jonathan Livas) and Coyote Dan (Harrison Smith) feels untethered in any meaningful way from what’s going on in the present day in the Berkeley house, which has been warmly conceived by set designer Carolyn Mraz as an aging hippies’ lair decked out in Navajo rugs, earth tones and booze. The best elements of “I’ll Get You Back Again” are not aural but visual: projection designer Jared Mezzocchi has a bit of Peter Max in his veins, it seems, with the walls of the house lighting up in snazzy psychedelic patterns during the songs, or during pothead Carl’s hallucinations of the songs, or both.
Chavkin is a terrific orchestrator of musical spectacle: Aside from the participation of Josh Groban, it was principally Chavkin’s exuberant, transfixing staging ideas that propelled “Great Comet” to a life on Broadway. But she’s on thinner ice trying to gather up the scattered parts of “I’ll Get You Back Again” in a way that gives the story some powerful narrative drive. Sure, the ’60s were all about freedom, but this kind of structural casualness is no way to sustain an evening that stretches to nearly three hours.
The actors are adept at embodying dissipated rockers, especially Manning, whose loud, sloppy Coyote Dan makes you believe that decades of carousing have left their mark. Kelly, a Broadway and film veteran who can play a stoner in his sleep, is also well-cast, and Helen Hedman has funny moments as a onetime flower child whose attentions in the old days amounted to a seal of rock approval. “Doing her,” says Coyote Dan, “was like getting on Ed Sullivan.”
Gancher has a way with a zinger. “I’ll Get You Back Again” needs more of that sharpness — and less, one feels, of a fixation with a reverential contemplation of the artistry of The Three Stooges. Yes, the slapstick of the Stooges figures heavily here, too — another layer in a show that more than anything else could use a wise, vigilant editor.
I’ll Get You Back Again, by Sarah Gancher. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Set, Carolyn Mraz; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Brenda Abbandandolo; music and sound, Rick Sims; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; movement, Mark Jaster. About 2 hours 45 minutes. $45-$65. Through Oct. 29 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.