Theater Review: In Musical Thought Experiment If/Then, There Is No Road Not Taken | Arts

Theater Review: In Musical Thought Experiment If/Then, There Is No Road Not Taken

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Anthony Rapp and Jackie Burns in If/Then - PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS
  • photo by Joan Marcus
  • Anthony Rapp and Jackie Burns in If/Then

If/Then

★★★ ½ 
Through May 29
DPAC, Durham


Overthinkers of the Triangle: arise, and see If/Then at DPAC.

Yes, I realize this unambiguous endorsement raises many more questions than it answers: Which night? Which seat? Invite a friend or go stag? Which restaurant—and which appetizer? Climb those decision trees. Just go.

As for the rest of the region’s theatergoers? You might want to think about it a bit first.

At the start, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s optimistic follow-up to 2008’s Next to Normal merely seems devoted to a different mental malady than the manic depression that was the focus of their Pulitzer Prize-winning first musical.

That’s particularly true in the case of Elizabeth (a confident Jackie Burns), the thirty-nine-year-old central character of the play, who’s relaunching her life in New York after leaving a dead-end marriage and job in Phoenix. She apparently splits into two different women—Liz and Beth—during an opening scene in Madison Square Park.

But instead of exploring the vagaries of multiple personality disorder, If/Then pursues an alternate-universe thought experiment. What if a woman, faced with a life-defining fork in the road, could choose both at the same time?

Given the broad influences of sci-fi and fantasy on popular culture, this relatively unadorned proposition does seem a bit vanilla at this point. Still, it’s interesting to watch the writers, designers, and technicians work through its implications and logistics in a real-time stage show.

That’s true even when they don’t solve the problems they face, or they deliberately muddy the waters. (In the second act, the show inexplicably flips one device that distinguishes Liz from Beth—one character always wears glasses.)

Extrovert Liz follows urban activist Lucas (Anthony Rapp, from Rent) to a street protest and pursues a dream job as a city planner at the expense of her personal life. Meanwhile, in alternating scenes, the pensive Beth finds more qualified professional success and a dream romance with a military surgeon, the awkward but winning Josh (Matthew Hydzik).

It’s rewarding to see how a single life ripples out and influences the friends around our central character. For example, a bisexual character chooses partners of different genders in the show’s contrasting scenarios.

Predictably, the back-and-forth tensions between the personal, the professional, and the political in Elizabeth’s different lives raise anew feminist questions of a 1980s vintage. Outside the realm of speculative fiction, can a woman ever truly “have it all”—career and family, community and self-actualization? What does “having it all” really mean?

After Next to Nothing, it’s granted that Yorkey and Kitt can write optimistic anthems (like “A Map of New York” and “No More Wasted Time”) and charmingly winsome tunes (“What the Fuck?”). We heard hard-won truth in songs sung by Beth and Liz about the roads not taken, “You Learn to Live Without.”

But under Michael Greif’s direction, the unsafe revelations in Josh’s deeply ambivalent proposition, “You Don’t Need to Love Me,” were cringe-inducing on opening night. And the storylines get truly snarled by the time we reach Liz’s simply overwrought “Always Starting Over.”

Still, the intriguing options and life alternatives explored in this contemporary drama provide overthinkers—and the rest of us—with food for thought. That much is a no-brainer, at least.


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