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June 11, 2007

Sessions, a new musical about group therapy

Show Title: Sessions
Book, Music & Lyrics by Albert Tapper
Theater: Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W42nd St, NYC.
Producers: Algonquin Theater Production and Ten Grand Productions, Inc.
Opened: June 10, 2007
Seen: June 5, 2007
Reviewer: Peter Kelston
Submitted: June 11, 2007

Anticipation was high. After all, this is a new musical at Playwrights Horizons, the original home of Grey Gardens. (Though it is not produced by Playwrights Horizons.) The plot synopsis was intriguing: a therapist works with his patients in group therapy sessions. The show’s website was highly polished, with interactive animation and bouncy music clips. (It has since been changed.) This excellent (read expensive) production value carried into the theater.

The set is strikingly handsome. A beautifully constructed, curved glass block wall with two attached banquettes serves as the outer waiting room. Remarkably (read expensively) this solid wall is actually the curtain. It splits and opens precisely to form a doorway into the therapist’s office upstage. When it opens completely the walls retract to reveal a very spacious, modern office - large enough for a desk, two couches and plenty of floor space for potential choreography. Floor-to-ceiling windows at the back overlook a meticulously drawn and colored, almost photo-realistic cityscape of mid-town Manhattan. A live multi-piece band is off stage right, partially visible.

This therapist must be very successful indeed!

So it’s surprising that the first song (sung almost immediately, there is very little dialog) is about Dr. Peter Peterson’s self-doubts. We hear his inner dialog with his alter-ego and conscience (an off-stage voice) worrying about whether he’s a competent therapist and how and when he will deal with the inappropriate attraction he has developed for one of his patients. He assures himself that he’ll handle it, and soon.

The patients enter to begin the first group therapy session. We meet George, a shy loner who has been obsessed with a college girlfriend he hasn’t spoken to in fifteen years, since she broke up with him. The group urges him to call her. Surely this has been going on for a long, long time.

It's surprising when he says ok, gets up, takes out his cell phone, excuses himself from the session, steps into the waiting room, the glass curtain closes behind him as he sings and leaves a message on her answering machine. I was left wondering what just happened. Something is missing. We met him, and poof! ..he changed. There is no exposition, no development, no therapeutic input. Nothing to explain his motivation or why this just happened now. It just happened.

All the characters, as they are introduced, follow a similar, frustratingly incomplete arc. We meet them. We hear their symptom or situation, and then we hear something that sounds like it should be old news to Dr. Peterson. But in every case, it’s treated as a new revelation.

All the patients and the doctor himself turn out to be stock characters whose personalities, symptoms and personal histories could have been borrowed from the table of contents or the prefaces to chapters in a Psych 101 text, or subtitles in an article in New York Magazine.

Despite the excellent production values (immaculate set, live band) this story of each is thin and flavorless, with only one notable exception.

Breakthroughs happen instantly, by fiat, without any process or transitional development to explain or show us how the patient got from were they where to where they just arrived.

Sunshine is a depressive (catchy name, yes?) about to leave the group after ten years. We are supposed to believe she’s ready to move on because she sings that she wants to live “Above the Clouds.”

Dylan, a slacker who walks around with a guitar strapped to his back and a harmonica mounted around of his neck, sings “I’m an Average Guy”… which later turns out not to be true at all.

Mary is a seriously and dangerously at-risk, battered wife who doesn’t have the strength to leave her cop husband. She takes refuge in the group itself, singing that it “Feels Like Home.” She is the lone sympathetic character.

The Murphys, a retired couple who recently moved from New Jersey to an apartment in the city so they could enjoy the cultural activities, now only bicker constantly because he sits at his computer and never leaves the apartment. They sing “The Murphys’ Squabble” (I suppose he’s shopping; there’s no mention of porn. That would have suggested that their relationship had much deeper problems.)

Leila, the siren who has been tantalizing the good doctor, has been absent from the group for weeks. We meet this breathy blond beauty in the waiting room. She has arrived to see the doctor, not to participate in the group session. We learn that she has made many bad decisions in her past about her relationships with men. And she’s clearly doing so again. She doesn’t appear to be interested in therapy. She only wants to seduce the doctor.

Despite the egregious taboo, he readily and without hesitation, tells her of his own deep feelings for her. Even if he is in love with her, how did this successful therapist get so stupid? He has completely forgotten his obligation to his patient and his resolution of just a few minutes earlier, to “handle it.” This scene is startling because until now he has been a harmless cipher. But now, his blatant and casual disregard of professional ethics makes him seem like a predator taking advantage of a waif. He’s become dangerous to his patient. He comes off as borderline abusive, possibly criminal. Even this cipher should know better. Could it be that the writer had a song about an unfulfulled relationship that he wanted to put into the show? They sing “I Saw the Rest of My Life” about how they saw themselves being together forever.

The doctor takes a phone call from Baxter, a new patient, and gets confused because he has the same name as someone else the doctor knows. This confusion isn’t pursued, so it must be a set up for something. But that payoff never comes. This name confusion isn’t mentioned again. (Or did I miss something?)

Act I is at an end. If there is any reason for us to care about any of these patients (other than the battered wife, very sensitively played by Trisha Rapier) we have yet to learn it.

Act Two opens with a rousing and incongruously upbeat dance number during their next group session. Apparently the good doctor’s approach to therapy is embodied, in it’s entirety, in the song titled “You Should Dance.” They do dance, but for no apparent reason other than that someone suggested it.

Baxter joins the group. He’s come because he and his father are estranged. You see, they’re competing real estate developers, and the son feels bad because his building is bigger than his father’s. He points to them both in the backdrop and sings about the source of his lifelong drive to surpass his father: “I Never Spent Time with My Dad”. Quel surprise.

Act Two goes on to tell us about the resolution of each patients’ issues. Most seem to be spontaneous cures. The loner moves out of his parents’ house and starts dating. The depressive sings to the slacker that “The Sun Shines In.” The Murphys suddenly like each other after he promises to go out, and they hug while singing “I Just Want to Hold You for a While.”

Later, Baxter tells us about his bittersweet reconciliation with his father. And for contrast, we have to experience the other end of the spectrum. We hear of an off-stage tragedy. It’s affecting, but so obvious, pat and uninventive that I felt manipulated, tear-jerked.

Whether each patient’s outcome is happy or tragic, we are simply told about it by the doctor and/or the patient, often in a duet. We should see it happen. We should feel the patient’s progress through it. But each resolution is described or sung almost as an epilog.

Finally, the good doctor meets his temptress in a restaurant. Isn’t this another egregious breach of ethics? They again sing of their unrequited longing (“I Will Never Find Another You”) as he explains that he can’t be with her because he has professional ethics and, almost in passing, mentions that he is happily married and loves his wife and their two beautiful children.

Despite his loyalty to his family, his heartbreak over Leila combined with the tragedy leads him to decide to rethink his practice. There is a final, pat twist which I won’t spoil for any reader who wants to see it.

Credit must be given to the competent cast for trying to invest the thin dialog and wan lyrics with some much-wanted depth. The director does an admirable job moving the large cast into, out of and around the set. There is very little choreography. The off-stage band sounds great.

I would urge the producers to consider following the good doctor’s course of rethinking his practice, at least until the book and lyrics can be developed or dramaturged into something more substantial.

Peter Kelston

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