By Tristan Lejeune
It’s a few songs in before Fun Home, the Broadway musical performing at the National Theatre until May 13, justifies its own existence.
Do we really, you first find yourself asking, need another middle-class white American’s memoir about a childhood that was more than it seemed? Is a father’s suicide truly enough to hang a whole story — a whole artistic existence — on? Why, exactly, are we here?
Then a trio of kids sing a fake commercial for a funeral home, and things hit their stride.
Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 coming-of-age graphic novel, Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold, is better at observing and crystalizing individual moments than it is at telling an A-to-B story. And that’s just fine. Three different actresses play Bechdel: as a child (Alessandra Baldacchino), slowly learning the truth about her homosexual dad, as a college student (Abby Corrigan), quickly learning the truth about her homosexual self, and as an adult (Kate Shindle), putting this all down on paper.
All three are commendable. Shindle provides the play’s center and its soaring voice. Baldacchino is the kind of child actress who looks born to the stage. And Corrigan is the most human — even in tighty whities, she has great comic timing.
Also aces are Robert Petkoff and Susan Moniz as Alison’s father and mother, two characters full of interesting contradictions. They run a funeral home. They’re educators and loving parents. They restored and live in a historic house so full of antiques it’s like a museum. And sometimes he has sex with men. Petkoff brings real warmth and fear to the role of a good dad and a shitty husband. Moniz avoids all cliche as his long-neglected partner.
This is the rare one-act musical that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to get away with giving you an appetizer portion.
Perhaps that, in fact, is actually because there isn’t all that much plot. Fun Home specializes in memories, episodic and framed off, like panels in a comic. The book and lyrics by Lisa Kron tap into Bechdel’s language to vividly recreate key events in her self-development. I’m not wild about too many of composer Jeannie Tesori’s melodies, but the way she reshuffles and blends them serves the cause, too. Especially well-rendered and affecting are the scene where young Alison sees her first “old-school butch” lesbian and feels a distant bell-ring of recognition, and the scene where college-age Alison discovers the joys of dorm room sex. Honestly, if Corrigan doesn’t make you wish you were a gay freshman at Oberlin, you might be beyond hope.
Like a good cook, set designer David Zinn knows that sometimes the ingredients and not the preparation should steal the show, and he’s hunted down (or more likely recreated) a fun batch of antiques. A stately grand piano. A rich silk sofa that actually looks comfortable. Three (or is it four?) different Tiffany lamps. Only in the play’s final scenes does it all come together — does this Home make a house — as Bechdel relives, instead of just reviews, her final visit with her father.
Zinn does double-duty as costume designer, and his work there is just as dandy. Less impressive are the lights, which can’t decide on a tone.
A note to the National Theatre: Recreating a Broadway experience requires more than a high-quality show. At Wednesday’s performance, ushers were more aggressive than they were helpful, cracking down on selfies like humorless museum docents. And would it kill you to put some background or director’s notes in the Playbill? I’d like to hear what attracted Gold to the piece in the first place, wouldn’t you?
It could have been the good taste. It could have been the lived-in, taken-from-reality feeling. It could have been the Tiffany lamps. Fun Home boasts all three of those, in spades.