By sheer happenstance — because sometimes in New York it can seem that everything really is happening somewhere nearby — I saw a revival of Tennessee Williams’ lyrically overwrought drama Orpheus Descending in a tenderly lucid, gripping production staged by Austin Pendleton in a Christopher Street church, poor-theater style with not much more than a few sticks of furniture. The language and a fine company did the rest. That was just a few days before Hadestown, which opened Monday at the New York Theatre Workshop, and which, like Williams’ fever dream, sets the updated tale of the doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice in New Orleans.
If you’ve seen NYTW productions in the former garage it occupies on Fourth Street in the East Village, you know you never know what configuration the auditorium may take for a given show, whether Rent or Once or Scenes From a Marriage. For Hadestown, the rectangular space has been turned into an intimate amphitheater where five main characters and a trio chorus of Fates tell the tale of beautiful Euridyce (Nabiyah Be) who comes under the spell of the feckless troubadour Orpheus (Damon Daunno). He seduces with his la-la world view and four-string guitar but comes up short in the providing-essentials department. Disillusioned, Eurydice follows Hades, King of the Underworld (that incomparable bass-baritone villain Patrick Page) down into the Lower Depths, where folks are warm, well-fed and bored to eternal death.
Complicating things are Hades’ companion Persephone (Amber Gray) who knows the score and vacations half the year Above, bringing with her spring and life and, I guess, wine and stuff. The fifth wheel is Hermes (Chris Sullivan), the spirit who narrates the tale with the assistance of three harmonizing Fates (Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub and Lulu Fall) who could sub as Harlettes.
First recorded and performed as a concept album, the song cycle by Anaïs Mitchell is easy listening, sometimes sparkling and at one point weirdly prescient for a piece written several years ago, not to say downright scary: that would be the Act I closer, “Why We Build The Wall,” with a lyric auditioning for Donald Trump’s campaign anthem. It’s sung by subterranean masses in celebration of their creepy comfort (“Why do we build the wall? / We build the wall to keep us free / How does the wall keep us free? / The wall keeps out the enemy”).
Director Rachel Chavkin (whose similarly environmental staging of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is Broadway-bound), working with terrific design talent (Rachel Hauck, setting; Bradley King, lights; and Michael Krass, costumes) and superb jazz-meets-country orchestrations by Michael Chorney, provides a Tiffany setting for Mitchell’s work. Hadestown is more enjoyable than Williams’ tormenting vision (his 1960 film The Fugitive Kind, based on the play, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward, still has the power to deliver an unsettling jolt). I didn’t weep for E&O when he blew their escape plan in the end. (But maybe it’s me: The lady seated behind me, emoting heartily the show, was practically speaking in tongues by the end.) I, on the other hand, was ready for the rest of a pleasant Saturday.