Saturday, August 22, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Under: A New Musical at Theatre 80 by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Under: A New Musical at Theatre 80 was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Under: A New Musical 
Book & Lyrics by Monica Hannush
Music by Julian Drucker
Directed by Alexandra Cadena
Theatre 80
80 St. Mark's Place
New York, New York 10003
Reviewed 8/20/15 

In October, 2014, five Yale students met in a common room to discuss producing a new play that would address the insecurities, doubts, lost love and fears inherent to current university life in the United States. It would also depict archaic university policies regarding students facing mental health issues as well as the sub par treatment those students end up receiving once confined in a psychiatric ward. Under: A New Musical presents the story of Serena Lazarre, a first-year student at Yale University who, after threatening to commit suicide, is involuntarily committed to the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital, where she is diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. The play is set both in the hospital and in Serena's dorm room at Yale as she retraces her steps over the past year in an attempt to discover how the demands, pressures and expectations of university life contributed to why she ended up being locked in the loony bin. The story is based on the real-life experiences of Monica Hannush, the playwright. Under: A New Musical debuted at the Morse Crescent Theatre at Yale University in April, 2015. It now makes its New York debut as a featured entry in the 19th Annual New York International Fringe Festival.

Under: A New Musical is an accurate and honest portrayal of the subjectivity of psychiatric diagnoses. It addresses upon what grounds those diagnoses are sometimes made and delves into the inadequate care many patients receive. I have often said we are all diagnosable and, if given the chance, psychiatrists could have a field day with any of us. That is not to say that some individuals are not chronically depressed and mentally ill. Some people are very much in need of therapy and treatment, But others, as long as they remaining functioning individuals in their daily lives, may not need the many medications that are so readily prescribed by doctors nowadays. The key is to avoid the trigger that invites mandatory intervention. 

In this serious musical, Serena Lazarre, a 19-year old Freshman at Yale University puts glitter on her face to stand out and for shock value, was depressed over her old boyfriend breaking up with her and her lack of perceived success, excessively flirted with boys, and lied compulsively. When she sent a blast suicide e-mail to her friends, her best friend Charlie called 911 resulting in her being committed. Serena's behavior resulted in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. While in the hospital, she befriends Billy McConnell, a fellow patient, who is diagnosed with depression and threatens to commit suicide ("they try to meditate the grief, but they can't offer me relief, so let me go!). Even though Serena is angry at Charlie (her girlfriend) for calling 911 on her, she reports Billy's suicide threat to the staff of the hospital. However, it is explicitly clear that each does so for selfish reasons. Namely, that they could not live with themselves had they not made the call. In the end, Serena is given medication, seen by psychiatrists for short sessions, and ultimately released. 

On the university front, we are introduced to Noah and Mark Harper as they struggle to fulfill their potential and the expectations of their parents. As Mark said, we were "just kids who were told we were so fucking special, but what are we now?" Serena seeks "to have a signature to stand out from the crowd." Noah is inexplicably jealous of Serena having invited Mark to a "naked party" and wishes he "had been dealt some real adversity," because without it, "we otherwise tend to create it for ourselves." Mark is quick to give Serena advice ("If you feel like a loser, try better, do more.") but in another scene, he is so depressed at not achieving more himself ("when you are waiting, all you're doing is wasting time"), he makes a feeble attempt to commit suicide with a plastic disposable safety razor. Finally, at the time of her threatened suicide, Serena justifies the anticipated act by saying that "it is better to die young with a promising future than to die old and a loser." The pressures to succeed and fit in are universal, but they are especially acute at Yale University where all the students come from privileged backgrounds or were the most academically successful students in their High Schools and Prep Schools. Great things are expected of them and there is a lot of pressure on them to succeed.

Michaela Murphy (Serena Lazarre), Aaron McAleavey (Billy McConnell), James Lee (Noah), Zina Ellis (Charlie), Sarah Householder (Ensemble), Erin Krebs (Ensemble), Lily Sherman (Ensemble), and Nathaniel Dolquist (Ensemble) all did a fine job in their respective roles but the standout performer was Jordan Schroder, a talented and charismatic young actor who played Mark Harper. Monica Hannush has great potential as a playwright and deserves credit for using her own personal experiences as inspiration for this musical. The book and lyrics tell an important story. However, the music written for those lyrics fall far short of the mark. There is also no comic relief in this play (with the exception of Nathaniel Dolquist, who sits over-medicated and still every time we are in the psychiatric hospital) and many of the scenes end abruptly. The book needs some punching up, the lyrics need to be set to a more popular style of music, and this play needs to be relaunched with a different producer, director and composer behind it.

There were six people in my party who came to see Under: A New Musical because of its serious subject matter and potential. Five of them and half the audience left at intermission and there was either no applause or only polite applause at the end of every scene. I suppose the production team, cast, and crew, who were brought up with the philosophy that there are no winners or losers, scores should not be kept, and everyone deserves a trophy to boost their self-esteem, will walk away thinking or rationalizing that the evening was a great success. They will be deaf to the lack of applause their show received and perhaps will feel that half the audience left simply because they had to get up the next morning for work, and not as a comment on the quality of their presentation. If that is so, they will miss the opportunity to salvage what works in this production and to jettison what doesn't.

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