Tease, Prices: Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins”

In Classic Stage Company’s revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, director and designer John Doyle has chosen to give our Lee Harvey Oswald (and erstwhile Balladeer) a dump truck ass. Even before he becomes the legend, actor Ethan Slater’s body is pit against the deeply unflattering, potentially oppressive lazuline jumpsuit, puffy and baggy, anonymizing the Balladeer along with the other members of the ensemble (in beet red and ivory white, with little surprise); yet, Slater’s backside is to be admired throughout. As he steps on and off the small, T-shaped stage, his pear-like posterior wrestles with how much attention should be being paid to it. Is Slater’s twirl with his guitar too forward, too naive, too knowing, too cocky? How swept up can you be in doomed innocence anyways? This is not mere vulgarity on this critic’s part, but maybe part of the crux of the show itself; an internally conflicted show at its empty yet bedazzled heart, attempting a difficult task: can you make presidential assassinations fun but also meaningful beyond a traditional narrative? Can you make the people who made the history books and who’ve been immortalized on the page as inhuman human again? Can you make the appeal of — no, can you make populist politics itself sexy? Assassins is necessarily a seduction, a dance macabre confined to the styles of its pastiche-obsessed creators, and thus, a theatrical and maybe ideological striptease which must find ways, however blasphemous, to entice its audience. What is the “Gun Song” if not an erotic ode — to power, patriotism, a history of violence? Little fingers and all.

When it debuted Off-Broadway in 1991 at Playwrights Horizons, and even so in its 2004 Roundabout revival, it was perhaps less explicitly such a political burlesque, the bells and whistles of its carnival framework an eye-catching frame, a blazing distraction. It certainly made the showmanship of the piece — which attempts to shed light on those who attempted to or successfully completed presidential assassinations, rooting much of their motivations in good ol’ fashioned alienation — obvious, but those productions, despite the chaotic din of the show’s actual ideological preoccupations, fixated on the lives of the assassins, and their respective beliefs, as something to sell. Which is by no means incorrect. But Doyle, ever the minimalist, has shorn his version of the show of exterior artifice, the exact theatricality that Weidman and Sondheim’s libretto is effectively predicated on. The excess, which might have been so integral to its premise (and also functions thematically), is gone. Which just leaves the gunslingers and their songs/scenes.

The madness tearing at the seams of this resentment-smeared show has been tamped down in bizarre fashion. With the exception of a few of the performers, most are muted in their supposed histrionics, as if many of their mental states have been, to their detriment, rehinged properly. Steven Pasquale’s Booth only ever bubbles in his pronouncements such that one could hardly believe that the thespian would ever be mentioned in period reviews; Tavi Gavinson’s Squeaky Fromme sounds more like an NYU undergrad than a deeply traumatized woman who’s found solace in a cult and its leader (the joke writes itself); and Wesley Taylor is definitely… making choices as Giuseppe Zangara, none of which are really coherent. There’s something rumbling in Judy Kuhn’s Sara Jane Moore, Adam Chanler-Berat’s John Hinkley Jr., and Brandon Uranowitz’s Leon Czolgosz — dissatisfaction, renewed power forged in the fires of hopelessness, simmering ambition, crushing isolation. But these feelings never quite coalesce and burst the way they need to for them to be believable as people who would go and shoot a president. Rather, those insights into complexity sit perched at the edge, a fuse as yet unlit.

It’s really only Andy Grotelueschen as Samuel Byck and Will Swenson as Charles Guiteau who know what they’re supposed to be doing, who know how to horrify and thrill the audience. Swenson finds fertile ground in the tension between insanity and performativity in Guiteau, his hair greasy and his flop sweat shining face never getting in the way of his thirst for spectacle. In “The Ballad of Guiteau”, his easy steps and alluring jazz hands tremble, as if bending his brittle mind beyond its means.

In Byck’s manic monologues taped for the benefit of Leonard Bernstein, he sits initially slack, relaxed and content to be as unclean as his aspirations. He waves the little microphone about, but then lets it rest on his chest, the sheer force of his words gluing the device to him. His fervor grows and, by the end of his second monologue, he’s out of his seat, a terrifying and intoxicating populist prophet. His words torch the theatre in wrath, a molten exemplar of white male indignation. By the time he launches into “Another National Anthem”, the Balladeer can’t help but be mesmerized, too.

Swenson and Grotelueschen thoroughly understand the tease here. They know how to play with the gaze of an audience. It’s not only their respective ideologies, not only the way that they sell them that’s on the menu here, but access to their interiority, how they think, how they feel, how adherent it is (or isn’t) to anyone else who hasn’t gone and picked up a gun and aimed it at a president. While everyone else’s stationary steps during certain numbers suggest indifference, theirs illustrates an active despondence, discouragement, the kind of existential anguish that has been spent on preaching to empty venues. Their righteousness, entitlement, and self-proclaimed feelings of injustice poison the air such that it isn’t so inconceivable that someone as pure as the former Spongebob Squarepants on Broadway would be drunk on their electric, impossible promises. They’re no more or less unfeasible than the American Dream, right?

Perhaps Doyle’s bare staging, with production design from Steve Channon, snarkily, lazily breaks the pledge before it’s been made, only a circular screen above the American flag-painted dais and the sides adorned with circus-like bulbs in patriotic colors available as pageantry. Blocking is baffling, undecided on whether its preoccupation should be with the isolation of social detachment or the intimacy of the small setting. Sound (design by Matt Stine and Kusnetz) is inconsistent, lyrics barely audible at times, and gunshots soft when they should be ear-shattering. Lighting by Jane Cox and Tess James feels ancillary, less a way to better understand character and intention than a way to make sure everyone is visible. But this is a production that feels more put on, amateurishly sashaying across its star-spangled stage, than actually produced; its text is less engaged with and mostly presented to us. Little is done to morph the room, when textually it must be theme park, church, city hall, hideout, theatre, and prison. It must engulf and convert its inhabitants, cosmologically, ecumenically. It must be the cavernous maw of the American id. If not through production design, then by its preachers, parsons, and prophets. Rather, it lands as unconvincing busking, with less commitment than your average sidewalk soothsayer.

But that Assassins’s gallows humor and starry nihilism conjoined to American politics is so easy to revive puts the show paradoxically in a difficult place: with a show that’s always kind of relevant (when isn’t there some social or political unease post-Reagan?), how do you justify a production’s existence with savvy, especially when it’s been stripped of its aesthetic pretensions? Its shiny surface basks in the light of American politics as the optimum arena of spectacle and performance.

Roundabout’s 2004 Revival

Doyle isn’t up to answering that question, nor is he interested in ultimately confronting the complications of Weidman and Sondheim’s project in general. American populist politics is not to be dismissed by any means, but there is a deep contrast (and an evolution of that contrast) of who feels disenfranchised and who, systematically, actually is. There are gestures towards this distinction in the book, but none so explicit that the white rage it contains doesn’t take center stage. Doyle’s approach is anodyne at best, a few actors of color occupying the ensemble (one of which, Bianca Horn, who is very good, also plays Emma Goldman) and one, Eddie Cooper, as the Proprietor. (And there is violinist Whit K. Lee.) The strain of power and powerlessness for these actors of color, particularly Horn and Cooper, is mostly absent: true, they hold the folded flag from which a red ribbon is pulled, and they share a wary look in the show’s finale, but their presence often at the perimeter of the action — of, effectively, a kind of white supremacy explaining itself in only class terms, in its most thorough parts — appears to betray the limits of the text itself.

It’s ultimately Booth who lures Oswald to become who he is, Pasquale just barely approaching a zenith of maniacal and uncanny might. And when Slater has shed his jumpsuit, his musculature is more evident in a white shirt and navy blue jeans: the sinewy back, the marble-like chest, and the ample, ruthlessly assertive ass. All juxtaposed against a face of preciousness, unknowing delight and wonder. As he walks about the stage, what is to be understood is an ongoing conflict, a lived-in body politic, a frame capable of the great hope that is the American Dream and the tough, hardened, rigidity of someone failed by it. But Slater isn’t mean enough, can’t sap himself of that expectation the way it was vampirically done to the others. There’s a little too much cheer left in him. Even alone in the corner, it’s hard to believe there’s enough ferocity to conjure the ghosts of others broken by the United States. Doyle’s Assassins is mostly empty when it should be capturing a feeling of emptiness that curdles to savagery, cruelty, and without the easy iconography of recent political administrations. It’s a failed burlesque of the insight into people left in-between helplessness and enfranchisement. When they should be baiting, goading, seducing with glimpses of their reckless passion, their obliterating ego like all good ecdysiasts, they just end up revealing that, like all asses exceptionally appealing or otherwise, they’re full of shit.

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Kyle Turner

Kyle Turner

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc