The barroom gathering play has been a familiar subgenre long before Harry Hope started pouring drinks. It’s the perfect crossroads for characters of various cultural, economic, emotional, and social backgrounds to intersect and let sparks fly.
But if you’re going to have disparate personalities bumping shoulders onstage, spark do need to fly. Which is why it is unfortunate that Cornelia Street, the inconsequential new chamber-musical-in-training directed by Neil Pepe premiering at the Atlantic Theatre Company, feels so mundane. Like many a customer at a real-life version of the bar the show emulates, it’s undone by an alarming lack of clarity.
The creative team behind Cornelia Street is comprised of book writer Simon Stephens, returning to Atlantic after a productions of his On the Shore of the Wide World at their larger Chelsea stage; and songwriter Mark Eitzel, the founder of alt-rock band American Music Club. This is their third collaboration, following 2010’s Marine Parade and 2015’s Song From Far Away, neither of which had a New York run. I’m not sure they connected enough to what they’ve concocted here to realize just how little of it jells.
The namesake of Cornelia Street is a small restaurant in the West Village that, like so many before it that came about during a very different era, has fallen on hard times. (It seems made to resemble the late, beloved Cornelia Street Cafe, which finally shuttered in 2019. Jacob Towney (Norbert Leo Butz) is the chef, a Jersey native and former punk who has cleaned up his act and lives above the bar with his teenage daughter, Patti (Lena Pepe); his newfound ambitions to upgrade their menu with more elevated cuisine like Iberico ham and venison rankle the restaurant’s owner, Marty (Kevyn Morrow). Perhaps if the white wine didn’t look so much like Mountain Dew, more people might come?
Much to their chagrin, their clientele is minimal, and yet even the few characters that come and go seem to overwhelm Stephens, who boils them all down to one trait, label or plot point: John (Ben Rosenfield), a young, flush Google employee is the only one who seems to order and pay for food; both Sarah (the great Mary Beth Piel), a former opera singer and bon vivant who always finds words of encouragement for Jacob and Patti and may have a larger drinking problem than we see onstage, and William (George Abud), a menacing cab driver with a side hustle as a drug dealer, drink a lot but never seem to lay down much dough; there’s Philip (Esteban Andres Cruz), an aspiring actor and waiter who seems relatively unbothered by his lot in life; and then there is Misty (Gisel Jiménez), Jacob’s stepdaughter from an early marriage, who arrives to inform him that her mother has died, lonely and penniless and that she wants him to pay, figuratively and literally.
That right there is enough gasoline to light a fire in most shows, between the challenges in saving the restaurant and acclimating to Misty’s arrival. But time and again, Stephens’ book evades and real sense of drama or heightened tension. The scene following Misty’s entrance finds her dutifully working at the restaurant (with what salary is unclear) and peaceably sharing a room with Patti – where’s the conflict? Out of desperation, Jacob makes a few questionable choices, but none of which seem to result in a direct consequence to either him or anyone else. More events of dramatic import seem to occur offstage than on; a car accident, drug smuggling, a character’s disappearance are described but not portrayed, and again, ultimately amount to little effect in the show’s overall narrative. A gun is introduced in the show, but never goes off. Cornelia Street feels less like a work of theatre than a television pilot.
Part of the show’s flatlining feel stems from a lack of definition, leading to ambiguous stakes for our characters, especially Jacob. He seems to be somehow reformed from a wilder past when we meet him, but to what degree is unclear, and that matters. Has he pulled himself out of a hole, or dug himself further into one? Despite credible work from Butz, there is no sense of scale. Is he secretly inches away from rock bottom, or about to see a light at the end of the tunnel? Are we witnessing tragic blunders or redeemable signs of improvement? His journey, and that of Cornelia Street as a whole, is opaque as a result. (Generally, the fate of the restaurant and how Patti will do on her upcoming high school exams should not be given equal weight.)
Other clumsy or questionable directorial choices abound: Why does Rosenfield’s John speak like a cross between Kyle MacLachlan in The Hidden and Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation rather than a human? Why does the first act end with a thud following a relatively inconsequential dialogue scene instead of a musical number – something that could, again, let audiences know what’s truly at stake here? And do we really need to have Peil use both C-words?
If I haven’t mentioned much about the music, that’s because Cornelia Street resists the urge to be a musical. While beautifully orchestrated, the numbers do not further either story or character, few of the lyrics resound, and they just end. And large swaths of time pass between numbers, which largely feel at odds with Stephens’ book scenes, including an important encounter between Jacob and Daniel McCourt (founding Atlantic company member Jordan Lage), an old friend who holds the future of the restaurant in his hands, that is entire score-free. To their credit, Butz and Jiménez are particularly effective at making these under-realized intimate musical numbers feel natural.
Cornelia Street spends most of its time craning its neck to mythologize the past, a time when money wasn’t everything and good friends were enough. But the only thing feels authentic is designer Scott Pask’s set, which truly evokes the kind of sawdust barroom of its era. Everything else feels false, and perhaps worse, less than fun. It’s a frustrating reminder that the old adage is true: you can’t go back.
Atlantic Stage 2