Review: Is William Finn’s ‘A New Brain’ a Stroke of Genius?

First comes the piano, then the bed. In between, in Barrington Stage Company’s revival of “A New Brain,” a dejected man named Gordon Schwinn plunks out the first halting notes of a song he’s writing. It’s about a frog, and he hates it.

In this musical, with songs by William Finn and a book by him and James Lapine, the prominence of the piano and the bed is no accident; they are the poles of Schwinn’s, or any artist’s, existence. To write? To sleep? It’s almost Hamletian.

But add an endless stream of groany rhymes and a life-threatening crisis, and it becomes something distinctly Finnian: a musical both twittery and existential, with an annoying tickle and a profound smack.

For “A New Brain,” first seen at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998, Finn shaped the givens of his idiosyncratic songwriting style and of the stroke that nearly killed him in 1992 into a show that somehow transcends both. If you could never mistake its silliness and sadness for anyone else’s work, you could never miss, in its intimations of mortality, how it inevitably speaks to everyone. After all, we must all decide how to balance the bed and the piano, or our versions of them: the thing that is our destination and the thing we do on the way there.

The ragged yet nevertheless powerful revival that opened on Sunday in Pittsfield, Mass., succeeds best with the darker side of that chiaroscuro. As played by Adam Chanler-Berat, Schwinn, like his rhyme-sake Finn, is a songwriter who probably doesn’t need a near-death experience to confirm his morbidly anxious disposition. Being forced to write hideous ditties for a television character named Mr. Bungee (Andy Grotelueschen) is enough to stoke his neuroses.

So when a previously undiagnosed arteriovenous malformation makes his brain “explode,” landing him in the hospital to await a risky procedure, he is already primed for a despairing review of his life, love, family and art. Joining him in these semi-hallucinatory retrospections are his best friend and work colleague Rhoda (Dorcas Leung), who tries to eke songs out of him; his indulgent lover, Roger (Darrell Purcell Jr.), who’s stuck on a sailboat; a homeless woman only tangentially related to the plot (Salome B. Smith); and various medical personnel including an absurdly alpha surgeon (Tally Sessions) who sometimes goes shirtless.

And then there’s his mother, Mimi, a passive-aggressive tornado of Oedipal attachment and regret. (She cleans her son’s studio while he’s in the hospital by throwing away all his books.) Mary Testa, who in the original production played the homeless woman, deploys a lifetime of stage know-how (and intimacy with Finn’s style) to create a shattering portrait of manic optimism just barely outpacing fury at a world that has already cost her too much.

In outline this might all seem grim, but in practice Finn’s songs, even ones called “Craniotomy” and “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” are almost always too bubbly or buoyant to sink. The homeless woman’s big number, “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe,” is a barnburner for Smith despite its bleak message: that disaster is the normal state of affairs for most humans. “Anytime,” a ballad for Roger that was cut during rehearsals in 1998 has been restored; Purcell makes it a lush tear-jerker.

How Finn turns emotional and lyrical indulgence into a kind of discipline, following no known rules of song construction yet scoring points anyway, is something I’ve never understood. Bombarded by rhymes that favor sound over sense rather than the other way around — “Thackeray” and “whackery,” really? — I alternate between cringing at their illogic and tearing up over them.

Part of the trick, as in Finn’s “Falsettos” diptych and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is surely how many of them there are. (“A New Brain,” originally formatted as a revue, is almost entirely sung.) So if at times Joe Calarco’s staging is as becalmed as Roger’s sailboat, its physical life stunted and those revue roots showing, not to worry. A fair wind will turn up soon.

The fair wind will often be vocal. That’s evident not just in the unusually well-sung big solos but in the tricky ensemble numbers. (The music direction is by Vadim Feichtner; the superb original vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown and Ted Sperling.) “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” a song led by the surgeon and a hospital chaplain, crystallizes Jewish fatalism (“the bad trait will always predominate”) in wacky doo-wop style. And the finale, revising the opening frog song as a hymn to the human capacity for reawakening — “I feel so much spring within me” — is almost impossibly moving.

That capacity for reawakening is particularly wanted now. News of the disastrous effects of the Covid pandemic on the theater keeps coming, with aftershocks that are often worse than the earthquake itself. Through some combination of careful husbandry and audience loyalty, Barrington Stage has kept steady, continuing to succeed with worthwhile productions of thoughtful plays and complex musicals.

Not all its neighbors have been so fortunate. Indeed, this production, which runs through Sept. 10, is being presented in association with the Williamstown Theater Festival, 20 miles up Route 7; Williamstown, facing an existential crisis as serious as Schwinn’s, needs all the help it can get. It’s not beyond the brief of “A New Brain” to suggest that everyone’s survival, especially in the arts, is ultimately linked to everyone else’s.

Luckily, as this ultimately uplifting revival demonstrates, Gordo’s law of genetics isn’t always right. Sometimes the good trait predominates.

A New Brain
Through Sept. 10 at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass; Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The Times. His latest book is “Shy,” with and about the composer Mary Rodgers. He is also the author of a novel, “O Beautiful,” and a memoir, “The Velveteen Father.” More about Jesse Green

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