The PopCulteer
January 19, 2024

Once again your Charleston, West Virginia based blogger has travelled to a big city to see a limited engagement of a theatrical production, only to find that, due to unfortunate timing, his review will be posted a day or two before that show ends.

But…here we are.

In fact, the show in question is Here We Are, the final work of the late Stephen Sondheim, with a book by David Ives. It’s based on two films by the surrealist master Luis Buñuel: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel.

The draw here is the curiosity over what Sondheim’s final work would be like. He’d been working on it for years, and the subject matter, true to form for Sondheim, is challenging, to say the least.

Buñuel is not exactly a household name, unless your household is into avant-garde surrealism and cool weird stuff, and taking two of his unrelated movies (they’re not even filmed in the same language) and weaving them into a stage-worthy narrative is quite a feat.

Ives and Sondheim mostly succeed here. Here We Are has a bit of an unfinished quality to it, which could be the result of Sondheim’s passing before the show was complete, or it may have been intentional, adding to the surrealism of the story. By avoiding cliche and conventional story resolution, Ives and Sondheim may be providing the most meta of commentary on the Bourgeoisie.

People expecting a happy Sondheim musical with memorable songs and an easy to understand story don’t get those here. It’s almost like the work is a mirror held up to lampoon those people who are most likely to attend a performance of the show, although that may just be a remanant of Buñuel’s now-quaint attempts at social commentary in his original films.

The first act is based on 1972’s French-language Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, wherein a group of friends travel around in a surreal landscape attempting to have dinner, only to be thwarted at every attempt. While the play retains much of the movie, it also jettisons quite a bit of the more bizarre imagery and situations, and completely changes the ending, which makes the second act possible.

The Second act, based on 1962’s Spanish-language The Exterminating Angel, takes the characters from the the first act, and inserts them into the plot from this film, where guests, following a dinner party, find themselves unable to leave, and trapped in a room together, descend into chaos.

Joe Mantello, working with an impressive cast, has crafted a theatrical world that seems minimalistic, but isn’t really as the world on stage expands as the world the characters inhabit shrinks. There are visual callbacks to the movies (more to Discreet Charm than Exterminating Angel) and the stagecraft is amazing. We begin with a stark white stage, but eventually have a full-blown set of a library/drawing room with water effects and open flames.

The end result is more parody than homage to Buñuel’s films (which are not without humor). The idea of violent revolutionaries being left-wingers instead of right-wingers seems a little naive these days. Rather than heavy social commentary, Here We Are is loaded with absurdity and downright slapstick. At one point in the first act, I was reminded of Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch.

It works largely due to a very talented cast. Every cast memeber excels, so I’m just going to list them all here before I single out a couple of them: Francois Battiste, Tracie Bennett, Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Jin Ha, Rachel Bay Jones, Denis O’Hare, Steven Pasquale, David Hyde Pierce, and Jeremy Shamos.

Bobby Cannavale seems to be channelling Eugene Levy’s SCTV character, “Bobby Bittman” and is priceless in the role of Leo Brink. Rachel Bay-Jones gets her fair share of laughs as Brink’s ditzy trophy wife, Marianne. Dennis O’Hare is a standout in multiple roles.

Here We Are is not likely to be considered “primo” Sondheim. There are hardly any songs in the second act and only one from the first act (“Superficial”) really stuck with me, but the same can be said of most of Sondheim’s works since the mid-1980s. The man had accomplished so much that he wanted to explore new ways of telling stories on the stage, even if that meant they were less commercial.

I found some of Here We Are a bit unsatisfying. I felt that the end of the first act, which diverts from the movie it’s based on, was vague and confusing. And I felt that the end of the second act was a bit muddled. I couldn’t tell if they tacked on a happy ending, or meant to imply that the characters were doomed to repeat the whole process over and over again.

I also felt that the second act maybe went on a bit too long, but it really could have used more of the dancing bear.

Still, Here We Are is a quiet artistic triumph. A fitting finale for Stephen Sondheim’s career, which saw him refusing to take the easy way out. I’m hoping that they recorded this, because I don’t know if they’ll attempt to transfer this to Broadway any time soon. This production is playing at The Shed at Hudson Yards in New York until Sunday, if you’re interested in seeing it and somehow haven’t heard of it until this review.

And that is this week’s PopCulteer. Check back every day for fresh content.