The trials and tribulations of living in New York City are explored in Ordinary Days, a sweet and thoughtful musical exploring the alternating wonder and frustration of life in the Big Apple. Currently being presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row, Ordinary Days chronicles four New Yorkers in 2007 as they navigate their everyday lives while pondering their larger futures.
Thirty-something couple Claire (Whitney Bashor) and Jason (Marc delaCruz) move in together and confront where their relationship is headed, while graduate student Deb (Sarah Lynn Marion) and artist–turned–house sitter Warren (Kyle Sherman) try to find their own “big picture” amid the struggles of life in their 20s. The characters’ stories intertwine both directly—Deb and Warren are quickly brought together under fateful circumstances—and just for a moment, reflecting the fleeting encounters that New Yorkers have each day with thousands of strangers as they go about their lives.
The largely sung-through musical is told through Adam Gwon’s contemplative lyrics and bright, whose pointed contemporary musical theater sound is enjoyable if slightly unmemorable. Gwon’s score does serve the story well, however, building out these four characters’ city lives by using touchstone New York landmarks and experiences as a way to reveal deeper truths about themselves. A rumination on paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art allows Claire and Jason to question their compatibility, for instance, and Deb has a revelation spurred by a spontaneous decision to hop on New Jersey Transit and get an apartment in the suburbs—only to quickly realize the town is “I’m-gonna-slowly-go-crazy-and-throw-myself-off-of-the-balcony calm.”
These songs flesh out the characters into three-dimensional people with rich inner lives who defy stereotype. At the same time, the musical offers something more universal through its “coming of age” themes and New York experiences, which ally the Manhattan audience with the show’s protagonists. One woman in the audience could be seen eagerly pointing at herself in recognition as Deb described her brief sojourn to New Jersey, and lyrics like “I wish that I could make these people disappear” and “I don’t remember the Muppets getting hives when they took Manhattan” resonate with any New Yorker who’s been fed up with the city. (“Woody Allen heard Gershwin in the air when he thought ‘Manhattan,’” Deb sings at another point. “Well, I’m not so impressed / I hear, like, Phillip Glass at best.”)
The show’s reliance on songs that explore character through metaphor rather than plot can cumulatively become a bit heavy-handed, however, and for all their benefits, not all the New York references completely land; an eleventh-hour allusion to September 11 feels particularly emotionally manipulative without offering a clear benefit to the storytelling.
Aiding Gwon’s score in making these characters so relatable are the performances, as the four actors bring these New Yorkers to life with both personality and heart. Sherman winningly captures Warren’s yearning for connection with a heartbreaking and endearing sense of naiveté, while Marion brings a hard-edged humanity to the snarky Deb—when Warren optimistically suggests them meeting could be part of her own “big picture,” she responds, “Oh my God, you’re right. … Sitting in a Starbucks drinking mediocre coffee with a professional cat-sitter is all my life is going to amount to.” Bashor and delaCruz have an engaging chemistry as the show’s central couple; delaCruz performs with an affable combination of both charismatic confidence and emotional nuance. Bashor, whose character feels the most underdeveloped of the bunch, nevertheless manages to portray the emotionally guarded Claire—Jason describes being inside her heart as a “favorite place I’ve never been”—with a smart balance of vulnerability and resolve.
Steven Kemp’s minimalist set design goes along with the spirit of the show; consisting of three large scaffolding columns covered by scrims that are alternately lit with drab neutrals and brighter hues, the set and lighting (by Anshuman Bhatia) reflect how New York can appear both humdrum and vibrant depending on the moment. This effective simplicity is echoed in Jonathan Silverstein’s direction, which blends the stories together and keeps the show moving while making the most out of small moments; a pivotal scene involving just the throwing of colored sheets of paper is both quiet and spectacular at once. Much like the score it’s bringing to life, this production demonstrates that sometimes the most “ordinary” things can offer the greatest joys.
Keen Company’s production of Ordinary Days runs through Nov. 17 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available through www.keencompany.org.