One of the tag lines for Sessions, Albert Tapper's new musical about a therapist and his patients, is “Couldn’t we all use a little therapy?” Maybe we all need a little therapy, but to make it through this show, heavy sedation might be more useful.
Reviewed by Ilena George
Enclosed in the glass cage of therapist Peter Peterson’s office in Manhattan, Peterson’s patients engage in a group therapy session where all the participants loudly try to out-complain each other. Each character gets his or her turn to sing out their troubles and each tale of woe is more insipid than the last. Together, they manage to embody or describe every clichéd dilemma that drives upper-middle class Americans into therapy, from seeking and never finding Daddy’s approval to coping with Mommy’s alcoholism and neglect to making excuses for remaining with an abusive spouse. Set to forgettable music more appropriate for an elevator than a stage and with lyrics that are at best uninspired and at worst tortured rhymes (Examples: “I haven’t been feisty since my birth/But now I have a sense of my own self-worth.” “Think of me as a chocolate éclair/Let me run my fingers through your hair/I’m not wearing a sign that says, ‘Beware’”), Sessions has as many flaws as its characters have mental health issues.
The fact that the characters are almost all unlikeable exacerbates the triteness of their problems. From cowardly and twitchy George (Scott Richard Foster), who can’t get over breaking up with a college girlfriend and who looks up to Dr. Peterson as the bastion of masculinity, to seductive but shrill Leila (Amy Bodnar), who unsuccessfully attempts to seduce the morally stalwart Peterson, the actors aim for flawed-but-human but hit only flawed instead. Two characters distinguish themselves as more sympathetic than the rest: affable Dylan (David Patrick Ford) who believes he is Bob Dylan (complete with harmonica, guitar and a toothpick hanging out of his mouth) and holds himself above the rest of the group, teasing them for their problems and refusing to his acknowledge his own and Trisha Rapier as the wounded but dignified Mary, who gives her character humanity despite having a stereotypical storyline as the victim of spousal abuser.
Playing mother hen to this unruly brood is Dr. Peterson (Matthew Shepard), a man who takes his work to heart and wears his heart on his sleeve. More sympathetic friend than impartial facilitator, Shepard’s Peterson is easily overwhelmed with emotion by his patients’ problems and his tortured navel-gazing—complete with “therapy sessions” with his subconscious (voiced by Ed Reynolds Young)—oozes with melodrama. Despite being credited by his patients as being far more composed and capable than they are, there is little proof he’s any good at his job, as several of the characters have major breakthroughs at the only group session the good doctor does not attend.
Sessions disappoints in part because the production does not lack talent. Most members of the cast, as well as director Steven Petrillo, are Broadway veterans and the quality of the singing is the play’s strength. But even excellent vocals cannot compensate for the tedium of so many woeful (and woefully similar sounding) ballads, broken only by the occasional ensemble number.
Aside from a few sight gags—a businessman chuckling at an issue of Highlights for Children, a Tom Cruise-inspired moment of couch-jumping—and Peter Barbieri, Jr.’s well-designed but clumsily operated set—complete with the mental health metaphor of an opaque glass wall—Sessions makes a series of bad choices it never bounces back from.
Music, book and lyrics by Albert Tapper
Directed by Stephen Petrillo
Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street)
May 30th to August 18th
Tuesday to Friday 8 pm, Saturday 2pm and 8 pm, Sunday 3 pm
Tickets: TicketCentral.com, 212-279-4200 ($50)
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.