The Roads Both Taken

Theater review: If/Then

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unless you’ve been stubbornly clinging to some medieval idea of predestination, you’ve probably realized that the unfolding of your life, like human history, is simply one actuality plucked from an infinite number of possibilities. There are so many profound, iffy, or split-second decisions along the way that could have led you to different outcomes, so many instances of split-second timing that could have put you in different places – or in different company.

If/Then (Jackie Burns)

  • If/Then (Jackie Burns)

Brian Yorkey’s book for If/Then, with music by Tom Kitt, isn’t the first script to show us what happens if a single stitch in history is dropped. It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrated the difference a single person can make in the lives surrounding him and in a town’s destiny. Back to the Future was a sci-fi study of a how the slightest tweak of the past can resonate – and radiate – for generations to come.
Yorkey gives us an evening-long double exposure for just a few years in the life of Elizabeth. A talented woman with city planning creds, Elizabeth bumps into two old chums in Madison Square Park when she returns to New York after divorcing her husband in Phoenix. Lucas is a bisexual old flame who is hyper-seriously immersed in activism, while Kate is a gregarious lesbian who’s an ace kindergarten teacher.

Hinging on whether she picks up a cell phone call or not, Elizabeth either leaves the park with the intention of meeting Lucas or Kate that night. Meeting Lucas, she becomes Beth, the powerful city planner. Or she’ll rendezvous with Kate – on a course to become Liz, meet a future husband, drift into teaching and motherhood, and wear glasses to make herself look smarter.

Scenes in Beth’s life and Liz’s life dissolve into one another as the glasses come on and off, lightly pointing out the joys and sacrifices of both career and family. At times, scenes merge – at Elizabeth’s birthday party or in her bedroom. Sound confusing? It is.

After seeing Idina Menzel star as Elizabeth on Broadway, I found it much easier to track Liz and Beth’s separate lives in the touring version now at Belk Theater. Yet after concentrating so hard on sorting out the Beth path from the Liz path, I still had to confront Yorkey’s confusing loop back to Madison Square Park at the end of the night – and the numinous haze that Elizabeth’s best friends had been turned into.

For the paths Elizabeth takes affect the destinies of both Lucas and Kate. In one scenario, Liz’s future husband introduces Lucas to his future husband, and in the other scenario, Beth is there to prevent Kate from divorcing her wife. In the welter of Kitt’s power ballads, the ones Liz sings so much like Beth’s, the background and the whole point begin to get blurry.

On Broadway, Menzel appeared to be a self-absorbed superstar condescending to play two mere mortals most of the night. I actually like Jackie Burns better on the tour. Yes, Burns turns every one of her ballads into an American Idol extravaganza as Menzel did, adoring her own voice to the point of frequently obliterating Yorkey’s lyrics, but she invests herself more in Liz and Beth between ballads, and we can feel more for her when her hearts are broken. True, her climactic “Always Starting Over” isn’t the three-act opera Menzel made of it, but her “What the Fuck?” just might be a little more comical – because Burns is more inclined toward vulnerability.

As Lucas, Anthony Rapp gets to be tender in the Beth scenario, singing “You Don’t Need to Love Me.” Opposite Liz, Lucas is more appealing and domestic, responding to the more romantically inclined David (Marc Delacruz) in the “Best Worst Mistake” duet. But apart from his opposition and cynicism when Beth accepts a high-powered government job, Lucas doesn’t really figure in the important dialectic.

That’s where Kate and Josh come in. When Liz runs into her future husband for a second time in a subway car, it’s Kate who tells her that the universe is trying to send her a message in “It’s a Sign” – and that Josh is the messenger. Combatting Liz’s rationality, Tamyra Gray has the kooky energy you’d expect from a prize-winning schoolteacher who proudly consults her horoscope and believes in fate.

Seen first in military camo after a tour of duty overseas, David either does or doesn’t encounter Elizabeth at the right split second in the park, but it turns out that he combines brawn and brains when he does, for he’s a surgeon. His arguments against Liz’s rationalism and her actuarial calculations of probability are more eloquent in “You Never Know” and more existential in the “Here I Go” duet.

Matthew Hydzik keenly understands the connection between those songs as Josh, and he brings out what is compelling about their arguments better than his Broadway counterpart. Statistics aside, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, and any tough but important decision we make in life will always be an intrepid plunge into the unknown. Even when things don’t work exactly as we hoped and planned – which is what the odds truly favor – it’s questionable that we’d want a do-over. For what we experience becomes who we are.

That’s pretty much what Liz is telling us in “Always Starting Over.”

Now do Elizabeth’s forking paths offer us a fresh insight – or are they an effective way to underscore the preciousness and suspense of every moment that we live? I’m only slightly more convinced the second time around. People that I overheard leaving Belk Theater on opening night were more preoccupied with figuring out what had happened than what it meant.

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