Review: Mercury Theater's Stellar COMPANY

Review: Mercury Theater's Stellar COMPANY

Come to see the new theater space, but stay for the company.

Mercury Theater finally unveiled its sister space next door, the intimate Venus Cabaret Theater, with a superb production of George Furth and Stephen Sondehim's COMPANY.

The show is somewhat immersive. The opening number, Robert's 35th birthday party, is being held in the Venus Cabaret Theater (which, a sign by the entrance states, has been closed for a private party). Cast members thank you for coming and seat you. There is a plate of hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar. Birthday cake is served at the top of the second act. The action takes place all around you. If you've ever been to a Theo Ubique production at the No Exit Café, it will all seem very familiar.

Of course, one major difference being that the Venus has had a $1 million renovation and is a fancy, state-of-the-art facility. The space feels like an upscale bar that is well-suited for the production. It will perhaps be more interesting to see how the Mercury transforms the space for "Monty Python's Spamalot" in June. Unless they plan on going more for a "we are the knights who say double martini," that is.

As nice as the new space is, the real reason to see this production is really the ensemble. I have seen many productions of this show over the years and never has the entire company of actors seemed to gel and work seamlessly together more than here. It has drama, heart and laughs and the ensemble collectively makes the new space hum and sparkle.

Robert (David Sajewich) has trouble connecting to his married friends and at times feels overwhelmed by them. He comes off as a happy, confirmed bachelor, masking his fear and loneliness. As Robert, Sajewich is likeable albeit a bit sad. His performances of both "Marry Me a Little" and "Being Alive" are delivered with honesty and sincerity that it is heartbreaking.

He also can't seem to settle down, much less commit to one woman. He juggles dating three women: Kathy (the epitome of the girl next, played by Kiersten Frumkin), the adventurous, leather jacket and skirt-wearing Marta (Kyrie Courter) and the ditzy flight attendant April (Allison Sill).

Frumkin, Courter and Sill are all terrific in their group number ("You Could Drive a Person Crazy"). Sill is also captivating in "Barcelona" (a song in which Robert unintentionally talks the flight attendant into missing a flight).

Courter is spunky in "Another Hundred People" singing of how crowded and dirty Manhattan can be all the while professing her character's love for it. Director L. Walter Stearns has made an interesting choice here as he has set up the number to have Marta running into Robert while out on dates with the two others. You can't tell if she is stalking him or if it is just coincidental. With a city as big and heavily populated as New York, stalking seems the more plausible of the two. It's certainly a different take on the character if that was the intention. Courter's Marta comes across sweet and a just a little bit unpredictable (and possibly crazy) as a result.

Frumkin has the least to do at least vocally. Various productions have sometimes feature a dance number for her character ("Tick Tock"), but it's been cut from the Mercury Theater production. What's left is a scene of dialogue in which Frunkin's Kathy pretty much tells Robert she's tired of waiting and is moving on. It's heartbreaking in that you wish he (and the audience) could have gotten to know Kathy a bit more. This is a testament to Frumkin's acting skills.

Part of the point of COMPANY is that Robert's romantic entanglements are secondary to his friendships with various couples. Each couple has their reasons for keeping the confirmed bachelor in their realm.

Harry and Sarah (Frederick Harris and Nicole Cready) are both struggling with their addictions (he to alcohol and she to food). They ply Bobby with both,attempting to live vicariously through him.

Peter and Susan (Derek Self and Nicole Armold) seemingly have the perfect marriage: two kids and an apartment with a balcony. They happily confide to him over dinner that they are getting divorced (but Peter still plans to live with Susan and take care of the kids). This doesn't fit in well with Bobby (and society's) view of what is and isn't an acceptable arrangement, though.

David (Ryan Stajimiger) is a reformed bad boy who has been tamed by his school marm wife Jenny (Hannah Dawe). They enjoy Bobby's company because he occasionally cajoles them to walk on the wild side (if smoking one joint constitutes being deviant, that is).

Amy (Jenna Coker-Jones) is a neurotic Catholic engaged to a calm and supportive Jewish man named Paul (Greg Foster). Coker-Jones wraps her lips through the rapid-fire lyrics of "Getting Married Today" as she has the mother of all meltdowns on her wedding day. It's a funny and triumphant performance of just how much pressure society and brides put on themselves to have the "perfect wedding."

Larry (Steve Silver) is Joanne's wealthy husband #3. He puts up with her mood swings, infidelity and alcoholism because he loves her. Heather Townsend's Joanne comes off as less of a bitter, wealthy housewife from the Upper East Side and more of an ice-cold district attorney (this isn't a bad thing). As a seemingly endless supply of vodka stingers melt her reserve, she unleashes her anger in the cathartic "The Ladies Who Lunch." This Joanne cannot stand women who just watch life pass them by. She lumps Bobby in with this group, accusing him of spending more time watching life than living it.

The character dynamic between Robert and Joanne has always been played out in somewhat of a maternal way. So too here. Judging from Sajewich's reaction, this wounds Robert more than anything else in the play.

Despite the script being more than 45 years old, things remain surprisingly fresh and topical. I couldn't point to a specific point in the play's text that Stearns has tweaked to make things sound more contemporary (one would expect nothing less from a director of his caliber).

With marriage now an option for an even greater number of Americans, the pressure from married friends --straight, gay and otherwise-- to conform to some societal norm is still all too real.

And while the intention of the show has never been to lay out a case for or against matrimony, event almost a half-century later, it still shines a telling and entertaining spotlight on what it means to be the third wheel.

Mercury Theater Chicago's production of COMPANY runs through June 3 at the Venus Cabaret Theater, 3745 N. Southport. Tickets $65 (includes appetizers and dessert). 773.325.1700

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From This Author Misha Davenport

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