At Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, when theatergoers take their seats, they’re greeted by a pair of headphones, a necessity for experiencing the show. The powers-that-be behind Falsettos would do well to employ a similar tactic…with tissues. Because trust me: You don’t want to walk into the Walter Kerr Theatre without a pocketful of Puffs.
William Finn and James Lapine’s 1992 modern-family musical — a double bill of the one-acts March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, originally presented Off Broadway in 1981 and 1990, respectively — starts innocently enough in 1979, with the disarmingly funny “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” The song introduces us to our antihero Marvin (two-time Tony winner Christian Borle) and everyone in his orbit: his ex-wife, Trina (Stephanie J. Block, a vision in polyester); their 12-year-old son, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal); his lover, Whizzer (The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells, his usual spark dampened); and his psychiatrist, Mendel (An American in Paris’ Brandon Uranowitz).
There’s no shortage of laughs, from tuneful one-liners (Jason: “My father’s a homo, my mother’s not thrilled at all”) to entire numbers (a knife-wielding Trina cracks up with a cutting board in “I’m Breaking Down”). And act two’s “The Baseball Game” — “We’re watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball,” the company sings as Jason haplessly swings — is a work of lyrical comic genius. Bonus points for the Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg references.
But amid all the laughter, there will be tears. I defy you not to get misty in Mendel’s “A Marriage Proposal” to Trina. (Uranowitz’s performance is so wholly endearing, in fact, that we completely forget Mendel is a shrink putting the moves on a patient — the ex-wife of another patient. Bad doctor!) Or during Marvin and Jason’s act-one-ending “Father to Son,” when Marvin finally manages to show some concern for someone other than himself. And it’s nice to see Borle — famous for his so-over-the-top-you-couldn’t-see-the-top turns in Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten! — finally playing a flesh-and-blood human being, even if he lacks Marvin’s necessary menace.
Act two, set three years later, is a veritable flood of tears: starting with the misty “What More Can I Say?,” Marvin’s love song to a sleeping Whizzer, and the weepy “Unlikely Lovers,” a ballad for the men with Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe), “the lesbians from next door.” Eyes will really well up with Dr. Charlotte’s news that “Something bad is happening” (the word AIDS is never spoken; it’s simply “Something that kills/Something infectious/Something that spreads from one man to another”); then the waterworks go back to a respectable eye-dabbing level with “Jason’s Bar Mitzvah”; and move into audible sob territory with Marvin and Whizzer’s “What Would I Do?”
Curse you, William Finn, for writing these heart-wrenching songs. And curse me for forgetting the Kleenex. B+