Three's An Amusing Crowd In "Company"

Carlton E. Forbes

Joshua C. Phillips ‘07 is the center of attention as Robert, the main character of “Company.” Phillips turns in an excellent performance in the play, itself an intriguing study of romance and relationships in 1960s Manhattan.

It’s wonderful to have lots of friends. But to watch as they all pair off and become unhappily married, comfortably miserable together, or happily divorced while you remain perpetually single? Not so fun.

That’s the situation of Robert (Joshua C. Phillips ’07)—whose friends’ mantra when inviting him to dinner is “It’ll just be the three of us!—in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company.” Directed by Jennifer L. Brown ’07, music-directed by Mark P. Musico ’07, and produced by Kara E. Kaufman ’08, the play tells the story of five couples, three ex-girlfriends and Robert, who is often stuck in the middle—literally.

”Company,” which runs at the Loeb Ex through Jan. 12, was originally a series of short stories, and it shows: each couple and girlfriend gets their or her vignette and then fades into the chorus. Robert is the only character who shows significant development; the others are more like snapshots of various dysfunctional New Yorkers. The lives and loves of unhappy Manhattanites are hardly underrepresented topics in fiction, but both the play and the production are witty enough that the characters, while familiar, aren’t at all tiresome.

The structure of the play gives many of the performers great showcase numbers and moments. Particular standouts are “Getting Married Today,” an intensely neurotic patter song delivered by a fantastic Jennifer H. Rugani ’07 as Amy as she has second thoughts about her wedding, and “Ladies Who Lunch,” socialite Joanne’s boozy tribute to womankind. As portrayed by Mary E. Birnbaum ’07, Joanne is a continually riveting character, even when she is only in a small part of a scene.

The ex-girlfriends’ trio number “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” performed by Alison H. Rich ’09, Kieran H. Shanahan ’07, and Rachel E. Flynn ’09, is also a highlight.

As Robert, Phillips has the task of being the central character throughout the play, but also the one with the fewest quirky and distinctive characteristics. He does an excellent job of holding attention amidst the more outlandish antics of his friends without detracting from their stories.

Ultimately, this play is all about the music. The bits between songs, while sometimes bitterly ironic –such as the couple who happily announce their impending divorce as well as their plans to stay together in one breath–pale in comparison to the alternately witty and moving numbers. Although a couple of the slower songs dragged a bit, the music is in general wonderfully done.

Musico’s music direction—he doubles as the first keyboard in the band–is fantastic throughout the play. Brown and Musico have worked together before under somewhat darker circumstances in last spring’s Beckett compilation “A Few Rags of Love,” also in the Loeb Ex; their work on “Company” marks a more upbeat collaboration.

The costumes and set work together effectively to underscore the status of the characters. Costume designers Olga I. Zhulina ’09 and Sabrina Chou ’09 put each couple in subtly matching colors while Robert wears neutrals, effectively emphasizing his isolation. The set, designed by Melissa E. Goldman ’06 and Grace C. Laubacher ’09, consists of five large cubicles along the walls on the first floor for the couples and three smaller ones on a second level for the girlfriends. The band is perched in between the two levels, serving to draw the characters together.

The set all has a late-sixties or early-seventies design, which is visually appealing and places it in the period in which the play was originally written. However, the effect is puzzling if you don’t read the production notes: the play itself barely comes off as a period piece, while the design makes it much more apparent.

Brown’s direction and Lauren L. Jackson ’07’s choreography make the most of the set, putting couples in their separate cubicles at times, and at others bringing them out of the corner like boxers to do battle (sometimes literally). The couples also emerge from their spaces in lighter moments to crowd around Robert, bringing good cheer and claustrophobia-causing affection in equal measures.

Eventually, Robert realizes that despite the hardships that he sees in the couples around him, it’s better to be with someone than alone. Whether or not you draw that conclusion from the bickering couples and equally conflict-prone one-night stands of “Company,” the play skillfully depicts them with wit and energy.

--Staff writer Elisabeth J. Bloomberg can be reached at bloomber@fas.harvard.edu.