A trio of musicians warms up on the left of the stage. On the right, a performer does his warm-up exercises in a backstage dressing room. Lights frame the proscenium. Otherwise, the stage is uncluttered except for a steamer trunk containing a few props and a free-standing door on a turntable. Subsequently the door will be used as a portal to various places, all of which designer Eugene Lee has evoked with minimalist dispatch.
After the pianist reminds us to turn off all our electrical equipment, the show begins to take shape or something like that. Happy or sad, musicals come in all shapes, sizes, styles, formats, and genres. Musicals also presume that life should be envisioned and experienced through motifs, songs, and underscoring, all of which is provided by performers and musicians. What makes the very bizarre, but oddly compelling “Herringbone” stand apart from any preconceived notions we have about musicals, is that it is both horrific and light-hearted.
What makes “Herringbone,” playing through Sunday, October 12, at McCarter Theater, unique is that we not only get all the components of a musical rolled into one miniature package but it is also performed by one very versatile actor, BD Wong, assisted by three sidemen musicians. An accomplished actor, most famous for originating the title role of “M. Butterfly” on Broadway and for his recurring role on the TV series Law & Order: SVU, Wong uses his many talents, including vocal dexterity, gender-bending, and age-spanning to impersonate 11 different principal characters, including a 36-inch tall, 37-year-old midget. He is also no slouch as a singer and dancer. To his relief I’m sure, he has the support of the musicians, each of whom has been assigned a character name. While primarily seated at the piano, Dan Lipton gets the moniker Thumbs DuBois, although he is also called upon to screw up his face when he is playing Howard, a rather eerie-looking man-servant.
‘Herringbone,” with a vaguely comprehensible book by Tom Cone and more easily accessible music by Edgar Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, has been around a while. It premiered in 1982 at Playwrights Horizons and was seen most recently last summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival, where Wong was able to hone his transformations, under the direction of Roger Rees, who also directs the McCarter production. “Herringbone” takes place in the present (Princeton, to be program-specific), as well as in Demopolis, Alabama (and elsewhere), and on vaudeville stages during the Depression Era. For his act, Wong looks spiffy in stripped pants and a similarly stripped double breasted vest over a white short sleeve shirt and tie (the work of costume designer William Ivey Long).
It seems that George, the entertainer, is formerly part of an act that called itself “The Chicken and the Frog,” and has a strange story to tell. George’s parents, Arthur and Louise, presumed they were in line as beneficiaries of Uncle Bill’s will. When that falls through, they come up with a desperate plan for their eight-year-old son, George, to break into show business. They are depending on him to get them out of their small Southern town. They invest in George’s training to become a Hollywood star. Although the only talent George has ever displayed was making a wacky, but award-winning, speech on the theme “I Am an American,” he is sent to learn the profession from Nathan (“Chicken”) Mosley, the same vaudevillian who previously gave up on the parents. A fatal mishap (or was it?) that caused “Chicken” to let Lou, “the Frog” fall to his death (“splat”) apparently results in a very weird phenomenon. George, possessed by the old vaudevillian, is suddenly able to perform beautifully executed dances, routines, and tricks that his mentor never showed him.
How about a musical that asks the following questions? Why does George suddenly turn on the chicken and wring his neck? And are George’s actions the result of his being possessed by the spirit of the Lou, the Frog? Is Lou’s revenge sweet and is George going to go through life with a split personality and possibly to more than merely contemplate suicide? Are we meant to see how a defenseless child might react to a parent’s abuse, be it physical or psychological? And finally (or, maybe not): Can a performer’s own identity be compromised by the roles he assumes and subconsciously allow the roles he plays to consume him?
One very disturbing scene finds the young George in a cheap hotel room where he is unwittingly seduced by a trollop who believes she is getting it on with Lou, “the Frog.” Figure that one out. Whatever permutations he takes, Wong makes all the characters’ voices distinct and their body language evocative. His performance also builds on the musical’s dramatic tension.
To Wong’s credit, there is never any doubt as to which one of the characters he is playing, even if it seems on occasion like two at the same time. The musical’s title is derived from a plot point that I won’t spoil. A tour-de-force for Wong, “Herringbone” manages to create its own special genre: The nightmare as divertissement.
— Simon Saltzman
“Herringbone,” through Sunday, October 12, Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place. $15 to $49. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.