You want to know about Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, right? Whether, in the New York City Center production of Sunday In The Park With George (a limited-run extension of a one-off performance last October) he nails Stephen Sondheim’s jagged music and questing, fiendish lyrics? How are the Hollywood star’s inhabitations of Georges Seurat, and later George, Seurat’s great-grandson? Is he all butchness and beard, no nuance? How does director Sarna Lapine, niece of James Lapine, author of the musical’s book, convey Seurat’s famous 1884 pointillist painting, “Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte” (“A Sunday afternoon on the island of the Grand Jatte”)?
First though, let’s talk sippy cups, or lack thereof. Because at the Hudson Theatre, where Lapine’s immaculate production of Sunday In The Park is mounted, it is also this gloriously renovated theatre’s debut production. Not only is everything sparkly and new—and your eyes should rove to the roof and its golden-framed constellation of lights—but there are no familiar plastic beakers for those wanting to take their drinks into the theatre.
The theatre’s owners must be lost in a haze of fresh-paint optimism, because at least for now—before carpets are ravaged and glasses smashed in the middle of actors’ fine soliloquies—you can take your glasses of wine, glass tumblers of gin and tonic, and glass flutes of champagne into the theatre. Like grown-ups.
This is not only terribly civilized, but apposite in the case of Sunday in the Park With George because—rather like at a gallery’s opening night—we are privileged spectators to an art show, the making-of-a-work-of-art show, an art show which asks what the meaning and price (both material and personal) of art is, what the point of art is, and why art should continue to be produced and labored over when the circumstances of both its production and reception can be so vexed.
The question of art and its purpose is asked and answered by not just Seurat and George, but also Dot (Annaleigh Ashford), Georges’ lover, and George’s grandmother Marie (played by Ashford as well), Dot’s daughter.
Gyllenhaal is excellent; his voice soulful and scarred, so lost in his work and himself he barely looks up. His first act tour de force is to play at being a dog, leaping around on all fours, panting, for “The Day Off,” kvetching about being “stuck all week on a lady's lap/nothing to do but yawn and nap./Can you blame me if I yap?/There’s only so much attention a dog can take.”
Ashford is more than Gyllenhaal's match. As Dot, she is not simply relegated to being Georges’ decorative muse and romantic partner. Dot is his emotional equal. She is thorny, and far from compliant. She forces him to examine what he does, and why he does it. We don’t yearn for them to be together, and Sondheim and Lapine deliberately jettison the conventions of romantic narrative to ensure oddly that their relationship is not the center of the show; the troublesome animus of art is, and art stays there.
Not for nothing is one of the key duets of Ashford and Gyllenhaal’s “We Do Not Belong Together.” Ashford’s own decisions about her romantic and material future make painful sense.
In this terrific production—by which I mean everything and everyone involved it is terrific—Georges’s phrase “finishing the hat” not only encapsulates all of what an artist seeks for in his or her pursuits, Sondheim himself later used his own phrase in two volumes of work interrogating all of these questions, and it used most piercingly here, with Seurat himself wielding his paint-brush and training his eye. The set design is as simple as an artist’s studio: a piece of cloth, stretching across the back of a stage, acts as both canvas in gestation and completion. There are, as in other productions, delightful cutouts of dogs.
If Gyllenhaal and Ashford are the name draws, don’t be surprised when you fall absolutely under the spell of the entire ensemble, including Seurat’s mother (played by Penny Fuller, who turns out to be a battleaxe with a far-from-hardened heart), her nurse, two soldiers, two chatty shop-girls called Celeste (Ashley Park and Jenni Barber, adept scene-stealers both, particularly Park and her adorably annoying laugh), Louis the baker with whom Dot makes a calculated match, and two hideously philistine-ish American tourists.
As they try to find romance and diversion in the park, their adventures and intrigues are animated by a zesty back-of-the-stage orchestra led by Chris Fenwick.
Thanks to Sondheim’s deft writing and the actors who portray them, we come to know all the subsidiary characters almost as deeply as Georges and Dot. Robert Sean Leonard as Jules, Seurat’s rival, and Erin Davie as his snooty wife, are the perfect beaky foils for the earnestness of Gyllenhaal. Philip Boykin as a gruff and menacing boatman has one of the richest voices on stage, and lucky you, if—like us—you find yourself seated near him when he sings.
Sondheim ensures this ensemble is given just as much life and emotion as the principals, and we see why in the culmination of act one, which leads to the posing and execution of the painting itself. The skill of the artist here, which we see configured on stage, is to wring order from chaos—and so the figures of Seurat’s painting are marshaled in harmony.
As well as glasses being allowed into the theatre, visitors to the Hudson Theatre may well, as they approach intermission, want to bear in mind another amenities issue: the snaking queues for the restrooms downstairs are not of women-formed, but—gasp—men.
The Hudson, no pun intended, stands alone in having—the night this reporter was there—a line of very annoyed males (the great theatre toilet frustration gender switch!) waiting for a stall, while the women, usually consigned to long waits on Broadway, blithely entering and leaving their restroom.
“And there was no divider between the stalls either,” said a man behind me. “You’re there, next to each other, right next to each other.”
On stage too, nerves are frayed as the curtain rises on act two. The company’s midway-show harmony is shattered in the opening scene with the very funny “It’s Hot up Here,” as the 19th-century characters try to maintain their serene poses for Seurat despite the baking Parisian heat, and the annoyance of being in such close proximity to their fellow portrait posers.
Then, suddenly, the action switches away from the late 19th century to the late twentieth and George debuting his “Chromolume #7”, an artistic reflection on great-grandfather’s painting, at a gallery, the question is asked again, when the same actors play critics, professional and the well-heeled, buzzing around George, who is just as agonized as his great-grandfather was. The modern times switch is narratively necessary, although really you want to be back in 1884 with the shop-girls and soldiers.
The actual artistic installation, “Chromolume #7,” is the most stunning visual aspect of this production: a work designed by Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash that features a massive, theatre-width spanning nest of undulating, colored bulbs that extend and rebound down to the front rows of the audience. They are, much like the production itself, mesmerizing and beautiful to watch.
There are other songs—“Putting It Together” and, most heart-stoppingly, “Move On”—which underscore again how an artist can most healthily and productively fulfil themselves and their vision, even when that vision seems impossible to execute, and even when it means having to bid farewell to others. Finally, meltingly, we return to the original portrait in the elegiac company song “Sunday.”
Much is being asked about what the function of art is in this vexed political era. Sunday In The Park With George perhaps asks the what-is-art-for? question the most insistently, and searchingly, of all. The answer is as tough, maybe even as opaque, as the question it responds to. But, as demonstrated in Sunday In The Park With George, that answer encompasses fulfilment, ambition, rejection, wit, pleasure, mischief, enquiry, heartbreak, sacrifice, selfishness, toil, inspiration, love, absence, history, and legacy: the full gamut of an artist’s life lived; the full mystery and power of what it means to be creative. That is surely something to strive for, even in the darkest of times.
Sunday In The Park With George is at the Hudson Theatre, 139-141 West 44th Street, NYC, until April 23. Book tickets here.