“It’s autumn in Connecticut, a wonderland to me,” a radiant Kelli O’Hara sings in the opening song of “Far From Heaven.” A scant few leaves drift down from the rafters as, behind her, projections of foliage flatten an October riot of yellows, golds and reds into two dimensions.
Frustrating and only intermittently transporting, the new musical from the songwriting team behind “Grey Gardens” heads up the Merritt Parkway from the beaches of Long Island to 1950s Hartford. As in Todd Haynes’s 2002 film, it’s a satellite paradise where desperation is spreading just beneath the candy-colored veneer of suburban bliss.
Cathy Whitaker, the devoted wife and mother played in the film by Julianne Moore, doesn’t have a clue yet, though the kids wonder what’s up with Pop, who’s never home in time for dinner anymore.
Even when Cathy is summoned by police to pick up Frank (Steven Pasquale in the role originated by Dennis Quaid), fist-shakingly, expletive-mutteringly drunk after he’s been hauled in for “loitering,” she stands by the man who lies to her but not with her.
It can’t end well, and when Cathy finds solace in the honorable attentions of Raymond Deagan (Isaiah Johnson, in the role played by Dennis Haysbert) the wagging tongues wag lethally. Raymond not only is her gardener but in the idiom of the times is “colored” or “a Negro,” never “black.”
Under Michael Greif’s uncertain direction, the three leading characters are played with conviction, especially Johnson in the Wise Naif role. But they to be seem at sea. Scenes begin sharply before drifting off at key moments, yet there’s a hurried pace that doesn’t make the evening feel any less long.
That’s surely because book writer Richard Greenberg -- in his third show of the season -- sticks more doggedly to plot points than to storytelling. I found myself ticking off each scene rather than being engaged with these people.
Scott Frankel’s bombastic music precludes dramatic tension and Michael Korie’s lyrics tend to the banal. The exceptions are two deeply-felt duets for Cathy and Raymond -- “Miro” in Act I and “A Picture in Your Mind” in Act II. And Frank’s confession to Cathy, when it does come in “I Never Knew,” is brutal: He doesn’t gloss the fact that he’s found what marriage to her could never provide.
Employing unremarkable projections and skeletal modules that often block the view, designer Allen Moyer doesn’t try to recreate the film’s louche color saturation. It’s one of the ugliest sets I’ve ever seen, lit with unrelenting gloom by Kenneth Posner.
For what color there is, credit Catherine Zuber’s exuberant clothes, especially the voluminous dresses for the very pregnant O’Hara. She brings her own radiance to the project.
Through July 7 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com. Rating: **½.
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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