Nothing to Do With, All to Do with Them
On seeing Sondheim’s “Company” twice, and the relationship and breakup that happened in-between
Have I got a girl for you. In the 2018 revival of Company, the 1970 musical about an unmoored serial dater in the city with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, on the West End in London, Bobbie wore a red dress, the color bright, irrepressible, but also an indicator of infantilization. No frills, very simple, silk and sleeveless, and knee length. If it weren’t so thin, flowy, and silk-like when it caught the stage lights, it could be mistaken for the same outline of a boarding school uniform. That choice, by costume and set designer Bunny Christie, seems intentional, fitting the show’s quasi-Alice in Wonderland take on the material, as well as illustrating Rosalie Craig’s version of the character, while also complementing her autumnal reminiscent hair, as relying on a certain innocence to protect her from growing up and confronting the scariest thing you can do as an adult: wanting something, wanting something.
It worked. Despite the role being a famously thankless one — cipherish, reactive rather than active, necessarily inert — the tension between the relative freedom of movement in the garment and the visual implications played well with Craig’s manner of articulating that internal struggle externally.
And now, for the 2020/2021 Broadway revival, a transfer of Marianne Elliot’s West End production, Bobbie wears pants. Or a jumpsuit, rather. The show is in New York again. People still wear dresses. But the jumpsuit, same color, says something different, especially when worn by its lead, Katrina Lenk. It’s a curious decision: in London, the dress wore Rosalie Craig (meaningfully); in New York, Katrina Lenk wears the jumpsuit. If the red dress bled color without control, Lenk looks like she could dye her outfit herself, with precision and accuracy. She looks striking, felinic, severe, the new lip of a ruffle traveling down her right shoulder and across her midriff like a conscious effort to look “fun”. And that was, at least when I saw the first public preview before the pandemic, a problem. The jumpsuit was being worn by a woman who knows herself extremely well, playing a character who isn’t supposed to know themselves much at all.
Some context: Company originally premiered on Broadway in 1970, shorn of a traditional plot with a more conceptual approach in its place. In a series of vignettes, perpetual bachelor Bobby interacts with, or maybe more accurately haunts, his friends who are in various states of partnership and marriage, all nudging him one way or another, projecting the meaning of partnership onto him, as he himself negotiates messily these dynamics with people he’s dating. If it was a jolt to Broadway audiences’ systems, it’s because those audiences were unprepared for both its conceptual approach and its confrontational nature, refracting what middle and upper middle class people took for granted in their banal lives. The banality of heterosexuality, here, was refracted by fun house mirror and longing showtunes. Bobby was played as a man until Elliot’s 2018 production, but other queer try outs have been attempted and failed to make liftoff.
My best friend from Miami, Juan, and I both detected the night of that performance, March 2, 2020 (simpler times, he said with a sigh), that Lenk was subtly aware of the mismatch between actor and role, of persona and performance. (Juan and I linked together by, amongst other things, our adoration for Company, both single and cynical enough to observe it the critical distance we thought, maybe erroneously, was advantageous. Juan has a Company tattoo.) Lenk was never a bad actor, but ill fit, perhaps ironically unable to control the fact that she gives off the impression that she would never give a shit about what anyone had to say about her personal life, or be friends with people that did give a shit about her personal life, in the first place. Which caused a miscalculation, I think: an impulse to recede too far into the background of scenes, to translate Bobbie’s desire to disappear for lack of a reason to be there into actually disappearing in a moment leaving no impression. There’s a difference between a ghost and no one at all.
Bobby is not a cipher. Bobby is a plume of smoke, a blanket of mist. He is push and pull, the negative space between two magnets. For an actor, I can imagine, dream and nightmare, as far as technical challenges go.
So I can appreciate and extend sympathy for the actors aware of those complications and approaching the task in good faith. (Not to speak ill of Neil Patrick Harris.)
What’s Bobby even supposed to do in the show? Prismatically assembled by one man on the inside and two on the outside of bourgeoise heterosexual life, but collectively having lived through the Sexual Revolution in the ’60s, its central character functions like an electrical transformer, taking that which is every day and so natural to its predominantly bourgeoise heterosexual audience — so normative [gags] — and abstract it, betray its mechanics and performative nature. Okay, but actually what is Bobby supposed to do for the audience on a more direct level, in the show’s “plot” so to speak? Bobby bounces around from scene to scene, almost always the third wheel, even when they’re alone. He relinquishes control, always reactive, devoid of agency. The hope is Bobby will garner some agency in their life and do something, right?
Before Todd Haynes started doing this on the regular with postmodern experimentsl ike Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Far From Heaven, Company unearthed musical tropes, abused them to question identification. Can you identify with a character who’s so plain and everyman that anyone can basically identify with him? Do you need a Bobby if he’s that broad? After all, George Furth had started writing the show as a series of one acts, where there was no Bobby, where there was just these relationships we could look at voyeuristically. And I always responded to John Doyle’s gaping abyss of a 2006 production with Raul Esparza, the cast playing instruments and arising from blackness. Given how intentionally inert he was as a character, how essential was he to all of this anyways, especially if identification itself was supposed to be a Venus fly trap in this show? And don’t get me started on the “actually, he’s closeted” argument.
I never identified with Bobby. I felt identified with Bobby’s indecision, his commitment issues, his inability to know himself and his desires. When I discovered the show at 16, desire, particularly for the emotional security that sparkles as an advertisement for normative, monogamous relationships, had already infected my blood stream. Love, or the idea of it, flooded my body at an early enough age that when I was twelve, I knew when I wanted to get engaged and married, where I wanted us to live, and what the names of our three children would be. I wasn’t out as queer, and while I wasn’t exactly self-aware about some of my desires, I had the language to express them. If anything, coming out only cemented certain aspects of them.
So I never got Bobby’s wishy washiness about relationships. I didn’t get the fear or pressure or weight. If anything, I felt like I kept going on dates with people who were more emblematic of those behaviors than I was. (And, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t self-aware enough to recognize when I did exhibit some of those behaviors.) So Bobby could always exist in the abstract for me anyways, yet I could still be drawn into his emotional journey as if vicariously, the desire to want itself a compelling terrain. So much of this is due to Sondheim’s music; the songs in which he sings (“Company”, “Someone is Waiting”, “Marry Me a Little”, “Barcelona”, “Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?”, and “Being Alive”) are almost enough for a song cycle in their own right. The melodies in particular do a lot of work to convey a breadth of emotion behind the mask of the nearly deadpan lyrics. “Marry Me a Little” feels like a rush, a catching up with one’s breath.
Though I’m still in them, I have spent most of my twenties longing for the thing Bobby shirks. (Hip Brooklynites might call him “avoidant” while sipping on their iced coffee.) In a way, it’s not surprising, as a child of separation but not divorce, that I’d want the thing that my parents were playing out the dissolution of. And then I finally got it.
It had been explained to me that Jenny would be providing the drugs for the shared birthday weekend for Ira and their childhood best friend, Sam, someone whose loquaciousness could toggle back and forth between charming and insufferable often and unpredictably. In a way, the insufferability of this friend itself was kind of novel, just because of the sincere passion and niceness.
But right now, I am in the car, in the back seat, playing on my phone, occasionally staring out of the window, the view smeared by heavy rain and a tombstone sky. The driver is Marta, raspy-voiced but lively, especially with my partner, Ryan. When Ryan and I would take car rides, they let me play disc jockey, willingly cringing through showtunes to my delight. Marta and Ryan spend the entire car ride from New Rochelle to a cozy house just outside of Cambridge chatting jovially together, seldom noticing me. But Ella Fitzgerald is playing on the stereo. Jenny is a jazz fan, and I made sure to comment on her record collection before we left from her apartment, the starting point for our journey. It’s also where I saw her do a line of ketamine before she took the wheel.
Ryan and I met on OKCupid; they knew who Derek Jarman was and identified as an “anticapitalist fancy boy”. Ours was a COVID-era affair, deep enough into it that the trajectory felt perhaps unusual by most measures (considering the circumstances): there was nothing to do but spend time together at each other’s places and watch movies and reality TV. I’d never met someone who had the stamina to watch a movie, maybe two, and then stream an episode. It became a source of pride as I pitched my “gentlethem” that they were someone who “loved Whit Stillman movies and the Real Housewives.” They were cutting and smart, their vowels slipping, sliding, and lassoing around the ear. A hodgepodge of different sounds, affects, and accents, their voice was intoxicating in its chameleonic nature. They did care, picking up DVDs on the street for me, cooking for me, cuddling. It felt nice to cuddle, despite the body heat setting off my sinuses. Their laugh is my favorite thing about them: a lighting bolt of sharp notes that streaked the sky, leaving a burn mark across it. Or, as Alec Baldwin described his Fox News-ish girlfriend’s laugh on 30 Rock, it was like “music, really mean music”.
They, by which I mean their group of college friends, had planned to do drugs: molly, ketamine, shrooms. When I was invited, I was intrigued but hesitant. Where was she getting her molly? How good was it? Had Ira done this molly before? Had their best friend and his lovely wife? What form was it going to take? I had only done it once before, the previous November, but had struck gold, according to an experienced friend. So I was disinclined to do anyone else’s stuff and wanted to evaluate with as much fine grain detail as I could. There’s no analogy here better than what the thing is: trust, intimacy, other people’s friends, and narcotics.
The three things had been changing at different rates between me and my partner: closeness deepened at moments, and then capitulated at another. We were caverns unsure of how deeply to let the other person enter, constantly shifting the road block. It was like jumping and not jumping and thinking about jumping all at once, the feeling of falling and not falling, being crushed and suspended subsuming my being. Some nights, too high, I would spin out, feeling the failure of my love pollute my body, the unconscious badness tearing open my body like a deep maw of shame. Too often, I worried I didn’t love them enough. Am I with the right person? I would ask myself. I was afraid that I had done the wrong thing in Amy’s estimation of love in the show: “You have to marry somebody, not just somebody.” I thought I had done the latter. I desperately wanted to believe that they were somebody, and I reminded myself of the things I loved about them.
Should I do drugs with Ira, around people I don’t know that well? It could be a bonding experience. It could set my mind at ease. I had a nice time when we were in Provincetown, the doubt felt like it was washed away. This could be like that, right? I thought about it over and over again. But the situation in which we got high, felt our bodies, connected in a way I thirsted for, seemed unrealistic. Why would I put them through getting high with my comedian friends? I’m not a sadist.
I thought about it in the car. Since they weren’t talking to me, I kept thinking about what this trip might do for or to us. The rain got worse, the visibility, too.
Around the holidays, I thought about breaking up with them if things didn’t get better in the next three months. I had an emotional breakdown in a friend’s apartment on Christmas Eve. In a daze, I talked about what bothered me. The perfunctory “how are you?”’s with no follow-ups; the sharp, bruising sarcasm; the infrequent texting; the lack of emotionality; the lack of words of affirmation; the seeming lack of interest in my life. After a year, it was taxing. It was a year of drawn out conversations that were never fights. We never raised our voices; honestly, we were very communicative, and as far as first serious relationships go, it wasn’t bad. But there were too many moments where I still felt lonely and uncared for. And making them feel the same way. It felt bad to want more, to have to ask for it, to feel my insides crater in. To have to want to want, when I thought it was supposed to be easier. Because, with my attachment trauma and their trauma, we never let the other one in. It felt like our baggage was, in its way, too similar to care adequately for the other person. I kept thinking that the relationship was almost perfect, that they were so smart and funny, that everything would be fine and all it needed was fine-tuning. I could see our idealized selves. If only there weren’t this emptiness.
I didn’t know why this neediness clawed at me. But now it was something that had scarred over and had been reopened and I blamed myself. I never noticed how it marked my every relationship, leaving it ashen.
These thoughts trickled into my consciousness on the ride as I passively scrolled Twitter, my memory like an object of critique I could invoice for.
“Could you put together another one?” Jenny rasped. An affirmative was given. Ira began milling about the front seat, taking out a makeshift tray and a baggy. They started to pour out the ketamine and cut it up, the white powder looking like leftover snow untouched by rain from the rain outside. The image of a flipped over car flashed across my eyes.
“Um, should we really be doing this?” I texted Ira frantically. They continued slicing. Shame flooded my body, but I said something anyway.
“Ummm, can we not?” I said, my voice sloped.
Jenny and Ira looked up in surprise. “Oh, sure, okay. I do it all the time, but whatever makes you comfortable,” she said.
“I don’t mean to be a bitch, it’s just, I don’t know you, it’s raining hard out, I trust my partner and I’m sure you’re great and trustworthy, but I don’t know you and it’s just a safety thing, and I would really prefer that you don’t.” It came out in a ramble streaked by the humiliation of having to speak up for myself, about something that seemed so obvious to me.
“Yeah, totally, I understand,” she said. As the materials were being put away, the predictable tension in the air kicked me in the gut.
“I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, are you mad at me?” I apologized so profusely that it papered over the fact that my safety never was a question, or a priority, or a consideration. I was aware that all of us could die. The question of whether I wanted to do drugs with these people, and with Ira, got answered. And the feeling of love — hungering for it, craving it, being terrified by it, expelling it — felt more opaque, unstable.
We broke up less than a month later, two days before my birthday, initiated by my, well, former partner. It started as a conversation about them visiting their family and ended with emotions shutting down as my ex left the apartment in tears, apologizing for breaking up with me. My heart became a lacuna.
I went to see Company again this week. It’s a show I revisit often enough that I have existing parameters, however unfair, of what the show should look like and what form it should take, though I welcome surprises in perspective. The initial version of Marianne Elliot’s revival in 2018 did that for me: a more human Bobbie, a more obviously comedic tone, a more explicit memory play framework, a way of recontextualizing and resituating its text in mostly thoughtful ways. When it transferred and I saw it in 2020, Lenk’s performance felt exceedingly disappointing, evidence that you needed a good Bobby to tie everything together. Her voice was pained, her mannerisms facile. I spent the rest of the past two years expressing my disdain for the production and Katrina Lenk’s performance, dismissing it as a “yassified” version of the text, even when people told me it got better after it officially opened in late 2021. (“Her singing got better,” friends whisper surreptitiously.)
Though the thought of seeing it a second time had crossed my mind, it felt more satisfyingly bitchy to instead sneer that I was disappointed the show had announced its closure (so soon after its Tony Award win for Best Revival of a Musical) because then they wouldn’t be able to cast a replacement for the lead. And then a friend expressed interest in going and I thought, “Why not?”
The morning of seeing it again, I texted the friend I thought I was going with, and he said he had given away his tickets because he had to teach in New Jersey. So, for the first time since before I was in my first serious relationship, alone now, I was going to go see Company.
I went to Bryant Park and let my masochistic impulse take hold: I would smoke part of a joint before the show, in lieu of edibles. It was a dream to see the show high. Marijuana made me more attuned to acting choices and feeling my emotions without the barrier of my self-consciousness. Even though it would inevitably send me spiraling. I stood in a corner, just outside the boundaries of the No Smoking signs. The rush to my head and the paradoxical rush and flushing of thought, like a thick fog to wade through, hit harder than I prepared for. A little dread started to set in.
I got to the theatre fine and took my seat. Two white Southern ladies were chatting without their masks on. After a few moments, the show’s neon logo sitting coquettishly on stage, the women (blond and presumably mother daughter) lifted their masks to their face.
“Do you smell that?” the mother murmured. The daughter nodded, scrunching her face. “Good, I’m glad to know it’s not just me.”
Shame coiled itself around my body for a moment. Ugh, I smell like weed. But then, as the show began, I realized they should have been wearing their masks anyway. I did a public service, I told myself.
The opening moments of this production of Company present a little dining room of sorts seemingly floating in the void, Bobbie using it as a raft. Out of the dark, her friends appear, there to celebrate her birthday, and to pressure her about her relationship. They jump into the dining room like Buster Keaton, stuffing themselves into her space, her head. Every line reading is insane, broad, elongated beyond logic, self-consciously put on. The Marta character (PJ played by Bobby Contee Thorton) was played as coked up; the pot doing square of a husband David (Jeff Kready) as barely closeted; the hellion Joanne (Patti LuPone) incoherently.
The whole show is like this, everyone making choices. In sequence, like a sitcom set in Limbo.
But it’s all encased in a fragile chalice, embodied by Katrina Lenk as Bobbie. Rather than the unsureness and frustrating blankness of when I first saw her, Lenk’s performance had matured and honed, delicate like blown glass. When singing “Someone is Waiting”, she splinters, her constricted voice dotted with shards. Her hands make the outline, hold it where it isn’t, of an imaginary lover, but it feels like she’s Pgymalion-ing herself, sculpting herself into the fantasy she wishes to be for other people, like her friends. “Marry Me a Little” finally sunk its teeth into my flesh. And although she couldn’t really do “Being Alive” the way it’s supposed to be done, Lenk made Company scary again. The void that Bobbie is afraid of jumping into and not jumping into came back.
The want was there. Lenk plays Bobbie so brittle, her voice unbending as if for fear of snapping. In her constrained and sharp gestures is the worry that wanting something could fracture herself, leave her broken. Her friends have sanded a self down to what she can still perform for them. The beaming tone of voice when speaking to her friends is a fragmented mirror.
It did hit harder; and I was more ready to let it. The ambivalence that was once viewable from a critical distance was now part of an emotional language my body had spoken.
If Doyle’s production posed Company as a modernist horror show, the text stripped and elementalized, even in its tunes, thus presenting existential loneliness as a waking nightmare, Elliot’s production is its complement, the literal stages lurching readying themselves to present travesties of heterosexuality, cartoonish and exaggerated. PJ (fka Marta, Bobby Conte Thornton) turns “Another Hundred People” into a coked-out canticle to the city’s mania; Jenny and David’s weed-fueled scene on the stoop makes heterosexuality the smoke in everyone’s eyes, the David I saw limp and fey and faggy; and Sarah and Harry’s bickering has become broader, a perfect emblem of staleness of both those relationships and the way in which they’re depicted on television in their broad gestures and acutely unfunny non-specificity. So when real emotion leaks through, it’s a poisoned dart, nerve-fraying. Existential loneliness is still terrifying; having to perform that you don’t feel it is maybe even scarier.
The show is imperfect still, with too many lipservicey updates, text changes, and what felt like ad libs modulating the text not so much that it’s different, but just enough that the lack of a complete rewrite poses an annoyance. But now it has clarity, severity. And perhaps the closure gave the air, the performances, this version of the show a finality to it. That the clock ticking for Bobbie is now ticking for the musical itself.
Or maybe the show was the same as it ever was. Maybe Katrina Lenk’s performance didn’t change. Maybe she always had that constricted voice, its shards glinting. Maybe when she used her hands to make the outline of a perfect person, she had done it basically the same way before, pained and hesitant. It is what it always was, which has nothing to do with, all to do with her.
I don’t want to hear that sound. Of ticking. Or for the words “Would I know her, even if I met her? Have I missed her? Have I let her go?” to slither beneath my skin. I got (part of) what I wanted, but then I also got the thing sending tremors through Bobby’s psyche. And it’s pat, cliche to observe that, with more experience in life and love, a show that’s fundamentally about, and a burlesque of, relationships and identity would then resonate more profoundly.
I still wonder if my neediness is snaking around everyone’s abdomen, not just mine, and I’m worried that either I changed for the worse, or the worst aspects of my want were uncaged. But I couldn’t play blank if I wanted to. The contradictions in relationships are tantalizing in art but feel unbearable in life to me. And they create these nasty little self-lacerating questions that rattle around the skull, about squandering, wasting love that was shared with me. “You always are what you always were,” Larry sings to Bobbie.
Katrina Lenk has made the character’s blankness a fragile mask, never removing it, even when asking Larry, “Are you sorry you got married?” And now she’s careful to move about in the jumpsuit, her movements and gestures staccato, lest a ruffle be caught on the moving scenery and unravel, lest it become unstitched. Lest the wanting is breaking. But she still moves, wants something, wants something.
Can I? I’m ready. Right?