Next to Normal by Carrnivale Theatrics at the New Hazlett Theater

Part Death of a Salesman, Part Hollywood Squares

Does anybody out there remember a movie called Mumford, from 1999, where this guy moves into some small town in the middle of nowhere, sets himself up as a psychiatrist, and starts treating patients, and then it turns out later that he has absolutely no credentials? You see films, book, plays with that basic premise every once in a while; it’s always seemed to me that they’re the author’s way of exacting revenge on the therapist from his or her own twisted past.

Friday night, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the case as I saw Carrnivale Theatrics’ production of Next to Normal at the New Hazlett Theater. The show’s lead character struggles with, to oversimplify grotesquely, psychological issues, to the extent that they interfere with her family life, so she undergoes psychiatric treatment to varying degrees of debatable success. If there’s a figure of fun in Next to Normal, it’s the show’s two psychiatrists, both played by Billy Hepfinger, who seems to be playing five or six characters instead of just two, making his two different characters alternately respectable, contemptible, and just plain ludicrous. It wouldn’t be the first time I heard of someone holding a grudge against his or her shrink….

However, according to the generally reliable Wikipedia, “Next to Normal began as a ten-minute-long piece called Feeling Electric (authors) Yorkey and Kitt wrote as a final project for the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop at the end of the 1990s. Their inspiration was a segment about electroconvulsive therapy Yorkey saw on Dateline NBC.”

So perhaps not, but perhaps. I will say that electricity is a key theme of the production, however—there are moments when the set lights up like a Vegas slot machine, and one such moment is when the shock therapy is introduced as a plot device. Sometimes the most effective terror works by throwing in a few laughs along the way.

About the set, and the setting. The last show I saw at the New Hazlett was pretty close to Next to Normal’s diametric opposite–Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, an aesthetically cluttered spectacle with three sets on one stage, featuring a dizzying array of characters jockeying for position. The New Hazlett worked very well for that production; it also works very well for this current production. It’s simply an excellent room, with a high, acoustics-friendly ceiling and no bad seats. It becomes whatever the show needs it to be. I am inclined to say that if I’m on the fence about going to see a particular show, if it’s at the New Hazlett, I‘m there.

In any stage production, the stage itself can be seen as a member of the cast, the way the narrator can be seen as a character in the novel. Before the action even gets going, the audience is sitting down and checking out the surroundings, so a certain tone is set even before the first curtain. There’s no curtain in this production (There wasn’t one in Into the Woods, either—perhaps the New Hazlett doesn’t have any curtains.) This production’s set is the framework of a house—three levels, with steps going up both sides, with purple illumination behind it. I first thought of the set of Hollywood Squares (minus the celebrities and their scripted comeback, of course); later on, I was reminded of a production of Death of a Salesman I once saw. I don’t think I’m giving anything away in advance by saying that if you can hold both Hollywood Squares and Death of a Salesman in your mind at the same time, Next to Normal is your kind of a show.

I have mentioned one performer in passing already: Billy Hepfinger and his dueling doctors. While certainly an integral part of the cast, and wearing a number of different faces convincingly, he is not a part of the family driving the story. (He’s either a fuel additive or a speed bump.) The mother, Diana, played by Daina Michelle Griffith, isn’t so much a lead character as she is the play’s focal point, the central protagonist orbited by a cast of antagonists, pulling the play, and the audience, in any number of dissonant directions. Daina Michelle Griffith turned my heart inside out nearly two years ago, in Quantum Theatre’s When the Rain Stops Falling, so she had her own tough act to follow last night, but she did not let me down. Daina’s Diana (I had to say that once) doesn’t so much run the gamut of emotions as she runs a gauntlet of them—careening from funny to tragic to sexy to deranged to no-nonsense like a bumper-car ride that never shuts off.

I liked Erich Lascek in the aforementioned Into the Woods production, playing the Baker. I hope that role didn’t typecast him too much in the eyes of the Pittsburgh theater community, because here he is again, playing much the same part–the anchored George to the twisting-in-the-breeze Gracie, except that here, he gets to be both funny and sympathetic—crisis averted.

Is Next to Normal a comedy or a tragedy? It has its hilarious moments and its heartrending moments, yet “tragicomedy” is bit too easy a way out. I am reminded of a story I heard about the film Terms of Endearment, and the reactions its creative minds received when shopping the concept around: “Ya wanna do a funny cancer movie?” Next to Normal straddles the middle ground between these two worlds quite well. As the French scribe, Jean de La Bruyère (oh yeah—him) once said, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.” At one point in the play, Diana says much the same: “Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough.”

By the way, this is a musical, more specifically, a “rock musical.” One can’t call it an opera, because there is dialogue in it, but the dialogue is mainly connective tissue between the musical numbers. So it may as well be an opera, because the songs are where the show’s real emotional power is. I’ve never seen a show where people spent so much time singing in each other’s faces, but I haven’t seen many operas, either, so maybe this isn’t all that unusual. There were times when I had flashes of both Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show—my guess is that the show’s writers are fans of both, in addition to knowing their Pagliacci from their Rigoletto. Besides, given the parts as they’ve been written, these characters have no choice but to sing in each other’s faces.

Remember the classic Looney Tunes opera parody, “What’s Opera, Doc?” where at the end of it, after Elmer Fudd has killed da wabbit, and he’s carrying Bugs Bunny’s lifeless corpse away while sobbing, and at the last minute, Bugs raises his head and says, “Well, what did you expect in an opera—a happy ending?”

This is not an opera. I will leave you with that thought until you see the show. Next to Normal will give you plenty else to think about, and not while you’re standing up at the end.

Where is the show?
New Hazlett Theater (map)
Allegheny Square East
Pittsburgh, PA 15212

When does it run?
Evening performances will begin at 8:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays (June 22-23, and June 29-30), with an additional performance on Thursday, June 28th. Two matinees will be held on Sunday (June 24 and July 1).

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