by Samuel L. Leiter
I first heard of the Bengsons (Shaun and Abigail), a married, indie-folk-punk-rock duo, in 2016 when they arranged and consulted on the music for a funky show at the Flea, Sarah Gancher’s The Place We Built, set in a Budapest bar/café/theatre/music space.
I had to wait another year to hear their own songs (performed by others) in Rachel Bonds’s Sundown, Yellow Moon, a straight play with music, at the McGinn/Cazale; my review mentioned the “pleasant but unexceptional guitar-strumming, country numbers.”
That impression is belied, however, by Hundred Days, the Bengsons’ concert-style musical at the New York Theatre Workshop, which reveals a far wider and more expressive range to their talents. This tuneful but skeletal show has been in development at other venues, beginning in San Francisco and including this year’s Under the Radar Festival, since 2014.
Sometime late in the process, Sarah Gancher joined on to craft the book; by then, however, according to the program notes, what originally had been a love story about a fictional couple had evolved into one about the Bengsons themselves.
To tell the romantic tale, a song-cycle of ardently expressive but narratively unremarkable numbers is combined with brief dialogue sequences performed by the Bengsons. Backing them up is a terrific band made up of Jo Lampert (accordion/vocals; exceptional), Colette Alexander (cello/vocals), Dani Markham (drums/vocals), and Reggie D. White (keys/vocals).
Hundred Days tells the story of Abigail and Shaun’s meeting, falling in love, moving in together, and decision to get married following a three-week courtship. A teenage dream of Abigail’s about the man she marries receiving a diagnosis that he has a hundred days to live precipitates the couple’s facing Shaun’s mortality. This forces them to contemplate how best to extend the time remaining by imagining each day as a year.
Despite its emotionalism and theme of death’s imminence, the show barely touches one’s heart. Its music—much of it designed to show off Abigail’s impressive, Janis Joplin-like range—most frequently has a hard-driving beat (Abigail sometimes accompanies herself on drums) but also includes lovely ballads.
Wonderful as they are on a stand-alone basis, the songs too often seem more about themselves or their emotional workings than the drama they’re supposed to illuminate. Too often, the lyrics get lost during the musical pyrotechnics, thus barely helping move the action forward.
The show, buoyantly staged by Anne Kauffman, with movement direction by Sonya Tayeh, is performed on Kris Stone and Andrew Hungerford’s concert-style set of shiny black floor, varying platform levels, bare brick walls, and dozens of tiny, hanging lights, with a group of glowing rods descending and rising at one point.
Hungerford also did the atmospherically evocative lighting. An artfully lit highlight showing finely powdered sand drifting from overhead to suggest time’s passing is distinctly reminiscent of the sand flowing from actors’ sleeves in the recent production of Indecent.
Sydney Gallas handled the costuming, whose most conspicuous feature is Abigail’s black motorcycle jacket, short, sleeveless, sequined white dress, and black cowboy boots.
However much we appreciate the performances of the dynamic Abigail or the laidback, bearded, and bespectacled Shaun, it’s hard to become involved in their characters, about whom we learn only the barest minimum. They come off more as abstractions than people about whom we care very much.
The sense that there’s no there there becomes even clearer late in the 80-minute show during a lengthy, nonmusical, and surprisingly banal chat between Shaun and Abigail, whose robotic delivery reveals their acting limitations.
Hundred Days would do well to study a similarly devised show, Cross That River, at 59E59, to find how best to combine acting, music, and narrative within the limitations of a concert staging.
Hundred Days. Through December 31 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery). www.nytw.org
Photos: Joan Marcus