I promise you a bummer ending

In which I don’t wanna make the world laugh.

On Sunday evening, I took myself to see the Encores! production of Mack & Mabel, and I say “took myself” because I a) went alone, and b) paid for my own ticket. (Once again I am checking my comps privilege, but yes, I usually don’t pay for theater because I write about it!) It was my first time seeing the show since the production put on by Reprise (the Encores! of Los Angeles) 20 years ago. That also starred Douglas Sills as Mack Sennett, with Jane Krakowski as Mabel Normand. I don’t remember it leaving much of an impression, but it must have, because the score has lingered in my head ever since. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve watched this video of OG Mabel Bernadette Peters singing “Time Heals Everything” approximately 600 times. It is the finest performance of what may be my all-time favorite Jerry Herman song, and you should take the time to watch it now if you haven’t — or hell, if you have.

I digress! I wanted to see Mack & Mabel again largely for that score: “Time Heals Everything,” “I Won’t Send Roses,” “Wherever He Ain’t,” “Look What Happened to Mabel,” “When Mabel Comes in the Room” — it’s an embarrassment of riches. But I also wanted to see it for Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha, both of whom I have loved in everything I’ve ever seen them in, and somehow rarely get the adulation I feel they deserve. (They were wonderful, naturally.) And finally, I wanted to see Mack & Mabel again because, like all of my favorite theater people, I am obsessed with Broadway flops. Maybe it’s because I read Ken Mandelbaum’s magnum opus Not Since Carrie at a formative age. Maybe it’s because I still feel personally attacked by the untimely demise of American Psycho. But really I think it’s just that Broadway flops are fascinating.

Mack & Mabel is no exception. Seeing the City Center production was illuminating in the sense that I loved it and also could absolutely see why the show failed. No matter how beautifully performed — and no matter how undeniably great that score is — the book is fundamentally flawed. I’m not sure there is a version of Mack & Mabel that could ever really work, though of course I spent a lot of time after seeing it (and OK, during the Keystone Cops song) thinking about what I would do to fix it. I’m not deluded enough to believe I actually have the answer here, and also I think my tastes don’t exactly match that of the general public (see above re: American Psycho), but I can’t help myself: I have some thoughts.

To me, the biggest issue with Mack & Mabel is that it’s a tonal mess, never fully embracing the melancholy until — surprise, Mabel is an addict and they can never be together and whoops, she’s dead now. I am not the first person to feel this way. As Kenneth Bloom wrote in Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, A Celebration, “Deep at its core was a simple love story and an exceptionally appropriate score. The urge to turn what could have been a bittersweet drama into a huge musical comedy was fatal.” The problem with Mack & Mabel isn’t that it has a bummer ending — I love a bummer ending — but that the bummer ending doesn’t feel earned. There’s too much silliness and slapstick and not enough emotional interiority and character development. The relationship between the title characters is deeply fucked, and that still feels roughly sketched.

So much of Mack & Mabel is rendered in broad strokes, which is bizarre given the pathos it ultimately aims for. Why, for example, do we know next to nothing about any of the characters who aren’t Mack and Mabel? Lottie and Frank each get one memorable song, but they hardly seem to exist as characters beyond their standout moments. (It’s actually kind of funny that Mack tells us, as an aside, that Frank was probably in love with Mabel the whole time. Good to know!) The book of this show often feels at odds with the score, yes, but beyond that, the show as a whole seems afraid to delve into its own darkness. And so when we’re suddenly informed that Mabel is an addict and a shell of her former self, it causes whiplash. In trying to walk the line between escapist entertainment and tragedy, Mack & Mabel repeatedly stumbles.

At least, I think it does. I’m not actually an expert, and I’m not convinced whatever vague, bleaker version of Mack & Mabel I’m imagining could ever make it to Broadway, let alone succeed there. (And please, god, spare me Ivo van Hove’s Mack & Mabel… though now that I’ve put that out into the universe, I’ll confess a morbid curiosity.) And yet, there’s so much good here. There are moments in this show that are truly transcendent, and such potential even in the weaker bits. It would be nice to see someone at least try to keep tinkering with it, even if that’s a lost cause — if only so I can see Alexandra Socha sing “Time Heals Everything” again. I ask for so little.

Photo via Joan Marcus/New York City Center.