Reviews

Stereophonic ***

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 23, 2024: David Adjmi’s play, Stereophonic, with music by Will Butler (formerly of Arcade Fire), is now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre after its Off-Broadway premiere last year at Playwrights Horizons, which I did not see. The play, which might almost be considered a musical, given the amount of music we hear, delves into the heart and soul of a series of recording sessions by a rising, unnamed rock band that some have likened to Fleetwood Mac. Many of the reviews have been ecstatic, some calling it a “masterpiece,” but for me, the play, for all its expertise, is too much of the same old same old.

The Cast of “Stereophonic”.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 23, 2024: David Adjmi’s play, Stereophonic, with music by Will Butler (formerly of Arcade Fire), is now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre after its Off-Broadway premiere last year at Playwrights Horizons, which I did not see. The play, which might almost be considered a musical, given the amount of music we hear, delves into the heart and soul of a series of recording sessions by a rising, unnamed rock band that some have likened to Fleetwood Mac. Many of the reviews have been ecstatic, some calling it a “masterpiece,” but for me, the play, for all its expertise, is too much of the same old same old.

Stereophonic’sfirst three acts take place in Sausalito, California, between 1976 and 1977; its last is in Los Angeles, later in 1977. Everything is acted in the same recording studio, meticulously designed by David Zinn, although we understand that the final act is elsewhere. It runs three hours and 20 minutes, which is arguably much more than the material requires. (The line to the men’s room in the basement lounge area was so long that gents eventually had to be ushered into the ladies’ room; I didn’t get back to my front mezzanine seat until the lights already had dimmed.)

Tom Pecinka and Sarah Pidgeon.

Technically, Stereophonic is a masterful achievement. Adjmi (Marie Antoinette)gathers seven characters, five musicians and two sound engineers, in a space divided into a downstage control room dominated by a huge sound console facing upstage, and an upstage sound room, separated by large windows from the control room. The musicians play in the sound room, and lounge around with the engineers in the control room. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting does wonders illuminating each area in appropriately dramatic ways. And Enver Chakartash provides the period-appropriate costumes, which look especially good on the model-slim actresses.

For much of the time, director Daniel Aukin creates a hyper-realistic world, abetted by a script printed in two columns depending on which room the words are coming from. The overlapping speeches and contrapuntal dialogue make it sometimes difficult to comprehend what’s being said, made worse when actors speak at lightning speed. When Lanford Wilson used a somewhat similar technique in 1965’s Balm in Gilead it was considered path breaking. 

Far more familiar is the play’s ambience, both the musicians’ private lives and the recording studio activity, seen in so many movies (especially documentaries) and TV shows, like Daisy Jones and the Six,not to mention on Broadway, as per The Million Dollar Quartet

Juliana Canfield

So once again we have sharply contrasting personalities, clashes of egos, drug and alcohol abuse, artistic differences, marital spats, career conflicts, comical tech guys, and the rest of the usual behind-the-scenes turmoil. While there are few surprises, a superb cast makes both the recording process, the character interactions, and the musicianship all seem convincing enough. 

Among the most memorable technical achievements are the recording sequences when the band and the engineers keep trying to work out the kinks in a song they’re creating, even though most audience members probably can’t tell the difference in tempo or whatever from one try to another. If only the play itself made some similarly compelling breakthrough without seeming so been there, done that.

Impressively, the five musicians are played by actors, most of whom have unexpectedly limited musical experience; lessons and intense practice were integral to the rehearsal process. They do a remarkably good job at creating the illusion of a real band (a cast album is due out in May), whether when acting or singing and playing their instruments; it’s hard to believe they’ve been playing seriously for considerably less than a year.

The Cast of Stereophonic.

Stereophonic’s meandering plot, covering the course of a year, depicts the band’s attempt to complete their new album, followed by its stunning success when it hits the top of the charts. The band’s producer, lead singer, and guitarist is an American, Peter (Tom Pecinka). Peter’s competitive perfectionism, and his inability to give praise where praise is due, is the main driving force behind the tensions the band undergoes, when attention is not being diverted by curious side issues.

Peter’s lover of nine years is the soon-to-be breakout singer, Diana (Rebecca Pidgeon), also American, but her lack of confidence, which Peter does little to boost, is a drag. Another significant element of the couple’s conflicted relationship is Diana’s unwillingness to have a baby. 

Then there are British bass player Reg (Will Brill), an alcoholic and drug user who kicks the habit, and his British wife, singer-keyboardist Holly (Juliana Canfield). Again, we have a teetering marriage. British drummer Simon (Chris Stack) is the most stable presence, although, since he’s been separated from his family in England for three years, he’s afraid it will turn his kids against him. California-accented Grover (Eli Gelb), chief sound engineer, is competent but afraid his padded resume will be found out.  His goofy assistant, Charlie, gets many of the laughs, largely because of his naïve reactions to what others say and do. A standout scene is Grover and Holly’s discussion of the sex scene in the Donald Sutherland-Julie Christie thriller, Don’t Look Now, which has nothing to do with the plot but makes for a delicious side dish.

The Cast of Stereophonic.

Having recently watched Daisy Jones and the Six, which presents a rather similar world of 1970s rock musicians and their strained love affairs and musical crises, I admit having liked Stereophonic far more, especially for its music; my daughter, who accompanied me, felt strongly the other way. Will Butler’s score doesn’t seek to be a pastiche of the period’s sound but is sufficiently like it to carry off the feat without being too anachronistic. His poetic lyrics about love’s travails didn’t turn me on (when I could make them out), and I have little desire to listen to the eventual album, but the songs are consistently listenable and very well executed. 

One moment, in particular, stands out because it says something about the artistic temperament. Diana, Holly, and Peter are standing in the sound room, in that order, recording something a capella. There’s a lot of back and forth, and repetition of the lyrics, as they go over and over it, with Grover commenting at the console. Diana, at the end of her tether, rages at Peter as he keeps himself from exploding. But when the cue comes, the trio instantly produces perfect harmony. There’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere.

Stereophonic ***
John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th Street, NYC
Through August 18, 2024
Photography: Julieta Cervantes

Sarah Pidgeon