Since the play is set in a recording studio in the 1970s, your mind may wander to the great films of that decade directed by Robert Altman. There’s the same overlapping dialogue, the same absence of segues between thoughts, much less conversations; and above all, there’s the spontaneity of life taking place before our very eyes in real time.
At their best, Altman’s films appear to be deliberately aimless while being absolutely riveting for anyone who embraces the Peeping Tom in all of us. That signature Altman style sums up much of David Adjmi’s intriguing new play, “Stereophonic,” which opened Sunday at Playwrights Horizons.
Like Altman before him, Adjmi takes his time. “Stereophonic” runs three hours with intermission, and along the way that appearance of randomness is not always sustained. Adjmi is a playwright, after all, and occasionally he slips and pushes his dialogue to make declarations that telegraph what his characters are thinking and feeling. Much better are those long, lazy moments (and there are a lot of them) where the five members of a rock band (think Fleetwood Mac) and two sound engineers attempt to record an album.
In her book “The White Album,” Joan Didion wrote about a recording session of Jim Morrison and the Doors and how these men talked to each other “from behind some disabling aphasia… There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever.”
Adjmi captures that claustrophobia and inability to communicate, but, here and there, he feels the pressure to explain what just happened.
The rock band in “Stereophonic” is comprised of an American couple (Sarah Pidgeon and Tom Pecinka) and a British couple (Juliana Canfield and Will Brill), with a drummer (Chris Stack) whose ex-wife and kids remain back home. Stuck with this quintet in a California recording studio are two American engineers, Grover (Eli Gelb) and Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), who have no business being there.
Grover has lied to get this gig, and one of the more subtle trajectories in “Stereophonic” is how the various musicians must berate Grover to teach him his job. Much less subtle is the character of his dimwitted assistant, Charlie, who plays the role of the punching bag and inspires way too many easy jokes about being a punching bag. Butler’s slyly evoked lackey, with his emaciated frame and a condition of male-pattern baldness that has never prevented him from growing his hair shoulder-length, embodies that loser perfectly without all the derisive gag lines.
Adjmi gives each of his band members a big breakdown moment. Even though he is the sage of the group, the drummer Simon goes for days trying to get just the right sound from his snare drum. Late at night and completely exhausted, the lead singer Diana can’t hit the high note — until she can, of course.
The actors clearly relish these splashy scenes, but they are more impressive in far quieter moments. Pidgeon and Canfield quickly establish a female refuge against all the testosterone raging around them. As the leader of the band, Pecinka projects a strong sense of male entitlement that masks a deep insecurity, because the two female characters played by Pidgeon and Canfield are the real creative force in this recording studio.
The actors expertly perform original songs by Will Butler, who regurgitates the sound, if not the spirit, of Fleetwood Mac.
Daniel Aukin directs, and he neatly achieves the most difficult task for any director: He never shows us he had anything to do with what we’re seeing happen before us onstage.