A chart-topping album. A drummer that can’t stand up straight without the aid of his giant bag of coke. Bickering bandmates and lovers. A rock band on the verge of break-up. These are some of the things on offer in just the first few minutes of Stereophonic. While I’m far from The Spectator’s resident theater critic, I do see my fair share of plays each year. Sometimes I’m compelled to write about them, but only when I’ve found something truly delightful. So let me start by saying this: Stereophonic is the best play I’ve seen in years.
On its surface the play is the story of a mid-Seventies rock band coming to terms with success while navigating tumultuous internal relationships with each other. It’s a story that’s played out dozens of times on stage, TV and film — and, as numerous other reviewers have pointed out, it’s very close to the story of Fleetwood Mac’s recording of their 1977 album Rumours.
Spanning a year in the life of the never-named-to-the-audience band and taking place entirely in a recording studio, the story picks up near the beginning of their attempt to record their new album as their last album climbs the charts and eventually hits #1. Lead singer Diana, played by Sarah Pidgeon, is the insecure yet mega-talented band member who’s dating lead guitarist Peter, played by Tom Pecinka. Singer and piano player Holly, played by Juliana Canfield, obviously has history with drug-addled bassist Reg, played by Will Brill. And drummer Simon, played by Chris Stack, is the glue and adult supervision trying to hold everyone together while hoping to soon get back to his neglected wife and children.
Over the course of three hours, we’re treated to the constant bickering and egos you might expect from drug-fueled rockstars. But we’re also witness to how ego intersects with creation, and how ultimately you have to get past the ego to create something beautiful.
For a play about a rock band, the show has more silence than you would think. And the silence woven through the play helps to tell the story. One mesmerizing scene sees Simon, the drummer, having a near breakdown as he tries to tune his drum. For several minutes it’s silence, punctuated by drumming, then Grover, the sound engineer played brilliantly by Eli Gelb, telling Simon the key is still off. More silence, More breakdown. It leaves you wondering that if Simon is the glue holding the band together and even he can’t keep it together, what hope is there for everyone else?
With original music by former Arcade Fire member Will Butler, you’re left hoping you can listen to a full album on Spotify (you can’t). And the music is classic Arcade Fire — if you didn’t know the context you might think you were listening to music from a new album.
In the play’s notes, playwright David Admji tells us how he almost left the theater world before being inspired to write the play, and that call back to the stage shows through as Adjmi’s ode to his love of art and creation. A thought we’re left to sit with, and what Adjmi wants us to take away, is how the act of creating something can be incredibly ugly. Creation is often the result of love — and yes, love can very often be ugly too, whether that’s love for a person or people, love of art or love of whatever it is you do. Stereophonic is a love letter to art and composition and devotion, and all the things that come along with it, including the pain and betrayal. It’s going to hurt you and it’s going to feel like it may kill you — but you do it because you can’t give up on what you love.
Towards the end of the play, the sound engineer, Grover, is speaking with the lead singer, Diana, who’s just been offered a solo album by their record label. Grover asks if she’s going to leave the band after all of this:
Grover: But… don’t you think this was… kind of like a nightmare?
Diana: Honestly, this was the best thing that ever happened to me.
The play ends on a Will Butler song, with the lyrics “It’s time to start again, again” playing as the stage fades to black.
Stereophonic runs through December 17 at Playwrights Horizon.