“210 Amlent Avenue” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (Closed Tuesday July 14, 2015)

Book by Becky Goldberg
Music and Lyrics by Karl Hinze
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Judah (Zal Owen) is convinced that his parents’ closest friend Mrs. Jordan (Robin Skye) is harboring a deep secret. Both Judah and Elizabeth Jordan have recently suffered loss: his parents both died tragically within the year as did her Broadway director husband Matthew. Zal returns to Mrs. Jordan’s home in the Hamptons where he spent a great deal of time during his childhood taking with him his girlfriend Sarah (Lisa Birnbaum) and a photograph of his parents and Elizabeth and Matthew Jordan that was taken in Paris. On the back of the card Mrs. Jordan (who sent the photo) has written, “I’m Sorry.” What she is sorry for and the process of Zal’s journey to self-understanding are at the heart of “210 Amlent Avenue” the new musical currently running at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Zal and Sarah arrive at the house just as Claire (Nikki Van Cassele) and Murphy (Steven Hauck) arrive and they enter the house together where family accountant Nick (Roger Yeh) and Nanny Leslie (Jen Brissman) have been busy helping Mrs. Jordan arrange for the receipt of her inheritance and the sale of her house and prepare for her guests. Elizabeth is embarking on a new theatre project and wants to move into Manhattan and leave the Hamptons for good – along with her secret. When questioned about the project by Nick, she replies, “It’s an adaptation of this turn-of-the-century novel called “The House of Mirth.” Scandal, romance, intrigue. Everything you want in a good story.” Obviously this foreshadows the goings on past and present at 210 Amlent Avenue which is itself replete with scandal, romance, and intrigue but little mirth.

Becky Goldberg has created interesting characters that become fully developed and believable during the course of the musical. The characters’ conflicts are also clear and mostly believable except that of Leslie who has never been to Manhattan and knows little about the canon of American poetry. This seems highly unlikely for a twenty-something young woman living in the Hamptons! Leslie is the niece of Elizabeth’s deceased husband and the care giver for Elizabeth’s young son Luke (whom the audience never sees but learns much about). The problem with the musical is that none of the characters (save perhaps Leslie and Nick and the unseen Luke) are at all likeable; indeed, they are contemptable and loathsome. It is difficult to care for these characters and their problems when they consistently behave so badly.

Although it is clear that the main conflict in the musical is Zal’s need to find out what happened between his parents and the Jordans and how that affected his relationship to his parents, much of the book, music, and lyrics is unrelated to this important quest. Songs like “Here in This House” and “Making Sense” clearly relate to the quest and successfully move the plot forward. Others like “This Is Where” and “Do You Think She’s Pretty” seem irrelevant and extraneous to plot development. Before the end of the first Act, the audience already knows Elizabeth’s secret and it has been too long to wait for a predictable outcome: there is little suspense here but there is still enough to be disclosed in Act Two to prevent disclosing the plot here.

Under Samantha Saltzman’s inconsistent direction, the actors do their best to expose their characters’ well-defined motivations and conflicts. Early in the musical, as Judah sings “Making Sense,” he is directed to crouch down and sing to the seated Leslie and his demeanor is downright frightening. There are times when it is difficult to hear the actors particularly when they are gathered around the dining room table. When there are split scenes utilizing stage left and stage right, one side or the other is in near darkness (only one spotlight?). Karl Hinze’s music is charming but somewhat derivative. His lyrics are sometimes awkward, Elizabeth sings, “Here in this house I’m dying slowly, smothered by time and drowning in space. Here in this house I can’t be more than who I’ve always been inside this place.”

Despite these areas needing more attention, “210 Amlent Avenue” has some delightful songs. Robin Skye (Elizabeth Jordan) delivers a powerful and heartfelt “That’s My Man.” Ms. Skye and Zal Owen (Judah) share a chilling “What Kind of Man Am I” and Lisa Birnbaum (Sarah) and Roger Yeh (Nick) command the stage with “Have To Look After Yourself.” It is always a delight to see Steven Hauck (Murphy) on stage and his duet with the talented Nikki Van Cassele (Claire) is a comedic thrill. Jen Brissman’s (Leslie) solo “The Life I Might Have Known” is a touching account of the life of a character who seems to know only how to care for others.

“210 Amlent Avenue” is as dark as it is mysterious and the musical is well worth the look. It’s as thrilling as “Bloodline” and as celebrative of family dysfunction as Broadway’s “The Country House” – with a voice of its own.