‘A New Brain’ Is a No Brainer

Alex Cullina
“A New Brain” is a 1998 musical based on the book of William Finn and James Lapine that follows the life of songwriter Gordon Schwinn who is diagnosed with a brain condition. Hosted by The Gallery of Players, the play runs until Feb. 18.

Award-winning theater company The Gallery Players channeled its right brain for a revival of the 1998 musical “A New Brain.” Conceived by William Finn and James Lapine, “A New Brain” is very personal, drawn largely from Finn’s own life.

The story follows Gordon Schwinn (Jesse Manocherian), an embattled and creatively blocked songwriter, who is hospitalized with a mysterious brain condition. Awaiting a diagnosis, Schwinn is forced to reevaluate existing relationships with his loved ones and grapple with artistic legacy.

Running 100 minutes without intermission, “A New Brain” is laugh-out-loud funny but refreshingly light during dramatic moments. Schwinn experiences vivid hallucinations of Mr. Bungee (Jim Roumeles), the star of a children’s show that Schwinn writes for. Mr. Bungee is an always-smiling foil for Schwinn’s cloudy character –– a projection of his psyche that can’t help but get under his skin. The audience is invited to peek into Schwinn’s head when the hallucinations and a surreal, extended dream sequence reveal the character’s worry that he has failed as an artist, a friend, a lover and a son.

Manocherian as Schwinn is the clear standout of the show, telegraphing Schwinn’s exasperation, incredulity, anxiety and worry from a hospital bed with equal aplomb. Whether he is rebuffing his chronically absent boyfriend Roger, trying to calm his obsessive and controlling mother, or despairing over what might be the end of his artistic career and his life, Manocherian is a tour de force.

Other strong members of the cast include Schwinn’s brisk friend and coworker Rhoda (Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld) and a nameless homeless woman with a sardonic streak (Laura Cetti). But other members of the ensemble fail to distinguish their characters, and director and choreographer Barrie Gelles sometimes seems to be at a loss for what to do with his actors in the space of the stage.

A heartfelt and sentimental comedy tackling heavy themes in innovative ways, “A New Brain” is a musical in a category of its own, but The Gallery Players’ production doesn’t always have what it takes to realize the show’s fullest potential.

“A New Brain” is running now through Feb. 18.

 

A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 5 print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected]

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