Despite the title, the lead character in The Evolution of Mann, a busy and lovelorn new musical from Douglas J. Cohen and Dan Elish, does not rise to a higher plane of existence. Rather than evolve, Henry Mann, played with his broken heart on his sleeve by Max Crumm, falls victim to his own choices as well as to the whims of those he matrimonially pursues. If, over the course of 90 minutes and a dozen songs, he ultimately finds a ray of hope, it is the females around him who elevate his consciousness, if not his likability. Yes, Henry is a bit of a jerk and kind of a mope. But thankfully, the ladies in his orbit, most of whom are portrayed by Allie Trimm in a whirlwind of costume changes and delightful vocals, provide spark, pathos and a more entertaining story. The greatest strength of The Evolution of Mann is the revolution of its women.
When we first lay eyes on the 32-year-old Henry he is passed out in his living room. Having been dumped, a year earlier, by his long-term girlfriend, Sheila, he has been slogging through his friends’ wedding receptions at a pace of one a month, and lately, we learn, he has been acting out. Enter Henry’s roommate and best friend, Gwen (Leslie Hiatt, joining Crumm and Trimm in Mann’s double-consonant surname club). She rouses Henry out of his stupor and reminds him of his recent bad behavior. Perhaps a month ago, the words would have landed more lightly, but now their opening duet, which paints Henry as being a blackout drunk and pawing women, hits with a thud that he never overcomes:
Gwen: You were deeply disgusting, you broke ev’ry rule/Perpetually lusting, so middle school.
Henry: I went after a girl who belongs in a shul./I really hit on the rabbi?
Gwen: You took her hand, did the hora/Then unscrolled her Torah.
Not including his stereotypically nosy mother, Henry spends his nights chasing or fleeing three different women, all portrayed by Trimm. There is Sheila, who exists as a taunting fever dream in a wedding dress. There is the sexy and indecisive Tamar, who makes Henry wear a beret when she’s not busy cheating on him. And there is the sweet Christine, an elementary school teacher who could provide Henry with what he needs if only he liked her more than Tamar. Trimm convincingly gives each persona a look, life and sound of her own. Christine is the best-written of the bunch and the only one who reaches a sensible conclusion. She also gets the most interesting numbers. They include a strange duet with Crumm called “Hard,” wherein Henry gets overly excited while dancing, and the night’s most charming piece, “It’s Only a First Date,” with Trimm bringing a lovely melancholy delivery to Christine’s realistic expectations:
Maybe you will never know his favorite band at Woodstock
His favorite film by Hitchcock
The books he’s read
His touch in bed.
Gwen, meanwhile, has a whole subplot of her own. She is recently divorced from another woman, named Diane. Hiatt keenly builds Gwen’s quiet desperation in wanting Diane back, but the performance is undercut by the fact that the audience’s interaction with the ex exists only over Gwen’s phone. With no actor bringing Diane to life, the romantic tension never gets a chance to develop. Hiatt also has the play’s funniest moment. In an aside to all the heartache, Gwen distracts herself by appearing as a giant amoeba in some terrible Off-Off-Broadway play. Indeed, the craft of theater is nodded at throughout the show. Stephen Sondheim is name-checked not once, but three times, as Henry tries his hand at writing musicals (while this musical, itself, is one giant tip of the hat to Sondheim’s landmark work, Company).
Another much-missed presence is that of a choreographer. In lieu of dance steps, we are often served up exaggerated mannerisms and gesticulating arms. Missed chances abound including figuring out something clever to do with the 20-foot-long phone cord that Henry and Gwen have, for some reason, attached to their wall-mounted landline. Libby Stadstad’s set design otherwise makes good use of the narrow confines at The Cell performance space. A nifty, transparent skyline floats above a thrust stage. With the room’s white walls and the audience seated inches from the action, the atmosphere conjured up by director Joe Barros and his team often seems more like a runway fashion show. It is an apt visual metaphor, given the vivid collection of women coming, going and changing in Henry’s life.
The Evolution of Mann plays through Oct. 27 at The Cell (338 W 23rd St). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit thecelltheatre.org or call (646) 861-2253.