There’s a lot to love about Fun Home, the hot new musical down at the Public Theater. It’s got great material, a talented cast, the most beautiful set in town, and—wonder of wonders—very few projections! So, picking a “favorite moment” here is a terrible, Sophie’s Choice kind of conundrum.
And yet… hard decisions have to be made.
But before that, some background: Fun Home tells the true, growing-up story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is based on her fantastic graphic memoir of the same name. Both book and musical tell a swirling tale of family, growing up and sexuality. It’s deep, meaningful, fun stuff.
At the Public, three actresses play “Alison,” the narrator and protagonist. The eldest (Beth Malone) looks back at the story of her life by way of elementary- and college-aged versions of herself, played (perfectly) by Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha. Adult Alison struggles to reconcile her coming out and life-narrative with those of her father, a difficult, closeted gay man (Michael Cerveris).
My favorite moment of the show comes early, as adult Alison goes through an old box of heirlooms and, on the other side of the stage, child Alison does the same with her father and their own box. As Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s wonderful musical plays, we gradually realize that the two boxes are, in fact, one and the same, here realized at different times in Alison’s life.
In an unobtrusive moment—one that could only happen in the theater—adult Alison and her father each reach into their respective boxes, and (cue the shivers) each pull out the same, silver coffee pot.
Incarnating this single pot twice, across decades, is a simple, Proustian way of saying everything about time, memory and history that no essay or description ever could. (Clearly, that’s not stopping me from trying!) Instantly, past is both infinitely removed and utterly of-this-moment; the object takes Alison back, but also emphasizes how far away that “back” is. I’m reminded of the wonderful line in The Glass Menagerie: “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Indeed—no more so than two places separated by a few feet of stage and a lifetime of experience.
This moment also illustrates unique power of simultaneous action, a device the theater shares with few other forms. Unlike a film, a play can stage two scenes and versions of the same character in direct physical proximity and have them interact. A few years ago director Michael Mayer spoke to the Times about this phenomenon in reference to his On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, praising it as “the beautiful theatrical gift of simultaneity.” Like Fun Home, Clear Day divided its protagonist between separate actors to (my opinion) brilliant effect, and thus let the audience in on a kind of dramatic irony: We got a perspective—wide, complex, funny—the characters never had, and got to see “self” interact with “self” in an imaginative, otherworldly and theatrical way. Fun Home does much the same, never more so than in this beautiful coffee pot moment.
Interestingly, simultaneity is also a prime feature of graphic novels, Fun Home’s form-of-origin. A caption “happens” alongside a picture; the resultant power can be in repeated emphasis (a picture illustrates what a caption describes), or in dissonance (a picture illustrates the opposite). Either way, the result equals more than the sum of the disparate parts.
In Fun Home’s coffee pot moment, the power is both one of repeated emphasis and one of dissonance: the pot, seen twice, shows how some things never change; Alison, also seen twice, shows how completely other things do.
Cool stuff. Cool stuff, indeed.
photos by Joan Marcus