STEREOPHONIC Hits All the Right Notes on Every Channel — Review
To walk into a three-hour play about the pressures endured by a 1970s California rock band on the rise is to prepare for a certain kind of template that your overeager neighborhood bro knows and loves; sex and drugs and “We used to be about the music,” and so on and so forth. David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, a phenomenal new play with gorgeous music by Arcade Fire’s Will Butler premiering at Playwrights Horizons, doesn’t avoid these clichés so much as drown them out with far more interesting narratives. Its title, delightfully apt, alludes not only to the multidirectional sound channeling which had become the norm in that era, but to its wonderfully Altmanesque style of overlapping dialogue and naturalism.
Daniel Aukin’s finely directed production sets its world up efficiently, with David Zinn’s sunken, shag-carpeted recording studio set quickly populated by two young sound engineers, the experienced Charlie (Andrew R. Butler) and the greener Grover (Eli Gelb), whose passion for music he hopes can compensate for the fictions on his résumé. Peppy vocalist Diana (Sarah Pidgeon) comes in wondering why the coffee machine isn’t working, sage drummer Simon (Chris Stack) produces a bag of coke and tells her it’s the same thing, the day goes on.
The rest of the band comes in: the band’s sole other woman, vocalist Holly (Juliana Canfield); her husband Reg (Will Brill), who is charming whenever he’s not choking back drug-induced vomit; and Peter (Tom Pecinka), Diana’s boyfriend, the band’s guitarist and de facto leader. His joked-about hypochondria reveals itself to be one facet of a poisonous, if artistically sound, narcissism which might sink the band’s future.
It is their dynamic that develops into the play’s central story, with an affecting fight between them about ambition, personal freedom, responsibility, and power as its heart-wrenching centerpiece. Diana, whose ready-t0-please disposition initially appears too unassuming to warrant much attention, also slowly rises to the fore thanks to Adjmi’s clever writing and Pidgeon’s empathetic, multidimensional star-making turn.
But Adjmi situates her single story within a beautifully composed album, and the cast is top notch and unfussy, even as they’re required to play any number of potentially overacted scenes intoxicated, furious, or zoned-in. The play and the production’s focus is on the psychic atmosphere.
The same vibe carries over into the (unnamed) band’s trajectory. Our knowledge of their rising success only trickles in through casual mentions of number one-hits and, most importantly, the tripling of their recording budget after one of their albums pops back into the Top 40. Their bottomless resources lead to limitless chances for corruption.
But what sonic magic they create, thanks to Butler’s contributions: equal parts thrilling and melancholy, reminiscent of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s glorious work on Once. Crisply conveyed through Ryan Rumery’s sound design, they take a while to feature into the play but their delayed arrival is worth the wait, and deserving of a cast recording.
Adjmi’s work similarly merits a wider audience, though Playwrights Horizons’ mainstage is hard to beat in terms of intimacy. Zinn’s set – which features the control room downstage and the sound booth further back – generates moments of genuine theatrical beauty during the band’s recordings, which the cast performs live. We’re made conscious of our roles as third-party observers; their art kept distant, but visible, as the general public’s relationship to celebrity’s trials and tribulations.
The play’s daunting runtime doesn’t fly by, but feels like listening to a favorite LP: rich in content, dynamic in production, wondrous in effect, and worth playing over and over.
Stereophonic is in performance through November 26, 2023 at Playwrights Horizons on West 42nd Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.