Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.
by Jerald Raymond Pierce
I saw closing night of “Next to Normal” at Syracuse Stage. I provide that as a caveat in defense of the reviews who, in the case of any live performance, potentially saw something completely different from what I saw. I read both the Syracuse.com review (by Linda Lowen) and the Syracuse New Times review (by James MacKillop). The most glaring issue for both was how they addressed the plot. (I was going to only focus on one, but the New Times review had some glaring misunderstandings about simple plot points and the Syracuse.com one was pretty barebones.)
Both reviews worked incredibly hard to not talk about the fact that the son, Gabe, is dead and a figment of the mother’s, Diana’s, imagination. Hundreds of words were spent dancing around what is really the equivalent of the twist at the end of the first third of a movie—potentially crucial, but not the major twist that the creators giggle about when they write. Gabe’s (non-)existence is merely to set up a more interesting, more devastating unexpected ending. How Diana deals with seeing him is the crux of the entire show, so not addressing it like it’s some big secret (especially almost a decade after it premiered on Broadway), is a waste of time.
Which leads to another aspect of both reviews: a lot of time is spent relaying playbill information. It’s really something I never thought about until recently after some of the readings, but theatre is a visual medium. So, why aren’t they talking about what’s on stage? Yes, it’s interesting that there’s some surprisingly credible star power in the acting pool of this show and yes, it’s interesting that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have notable musical theatre careers. But that doesn’t mean the mentions of actors in a review should be boiled down to their credits plus one sentence saying they “dazzle, spark and stun” (Lowen).
Again, not something I really thought of until recent classes, but that descriptor really means nothing. What did they DO that dazzled, sparked, or stunned? I saw the show, and in the case of Glen Seven Allen (the husband, Dan), it was nothing. Judy McLane (Diana, who’s credits are worth noting, because she was in “Mama Mia” for something like a decade) was great, on the other hand, because her performance was so desperate and clawing in a whirlwind of people who just wanted to help, but just couldn’t figure out how.
I don’t understand (well, I do, I’m sure I’ve done it numerous times) how a reviewer can write “At various times on opening night, I witnessed hands brush away tears, heard suppressed sobs and sniffles, felt tension stiffen some theatergoers around me” without once giving imagery of what could potentially drive that reaction.
No mention of a mother dumping pills down the drain at the request of a non-existent son. No mention of a husband and wife getting into a musical screaming match as she asks why he stays if dealing with her is such a pain. No mention of a daughter (Sara Masterson as Natalie, who has the most heartbreaking performance in the show—and whose name is misspelled in Syracuse.com's coverage as of writing this) tearing her own life apart because of the fear that she’ll become just as “crazy” as her mother. No mention of Dan pleading for Diana to talk to him while she stares into the eyes of her dead son. There’s no shortage of devastating imagery to get across what this show does and is capable of emotionally. It’s just not used.
Finally, perhaps unsurprisingly, barely any time was given in either review to the designers beyond basic credits. Which, in my opinion, is both infuriating and the most glaring indication of what these reviewers focused on. At the top of the set, lit as the audience came in and periodically throughout, was a pristine baby’s room. It loomed over everything, unexplained for a long while. It places a lot of questions and amplifies the text in an eerie way since it’s the only “room” we never see entered and no babies are in the show.
On a more “my own review of the show” note, I think director Bob Hupp missed the mark tonally at the beginning. It’s encapsulated in MacKillop’s incorrect thought that Dan drives Diana to “meet psychiatrist Dr. Madden” because he’s “recognizing the seriousness” of Diana making sandwiches on the floor. Both MacKillop and Hupp are missing the fact that this family has been dealing with this for years (16 years, to be precise). This is a family struggling to live a normal life in abnormal circumstances. I think MacKillop misunderstands this because Hupp directs the early moments to be more jovial than the script is capable of. This mostly comes up when Dan is hamming it, almost cartoonishly, for laughs.
A teacher of mine always said to never play the ending—start as far away as possible. I think that’s what Hupp tried to do. He tried to play the opposite of the devastation and wreckage to come. But he missed an obvious opposite of that. It doesn’t have to be light and flippant. I can’t even call what I saw denial, it was closer to a blatant lack of acknowledgement. The opposite of failure—and that’s, in the end what this is, a family failing to be normal—can, and in this case probably should be, hope. Hope the next treatment will be the last, hope things are going to be better.