Gordon Schwinn (Riley McNutt) invites the audience to his fever-dream of a life turned actual, medical fever-dream in the funky little opera, A New Brain. Composed of roughly one million songs and only 10 cast members, A New Brain has an incredible amount of heart and sincerity wrapped around playful absurdity—you will laugh, you will sigh, and you will wish you were able to remember more of the songs. Gordon is a songwriter for the tyrannical, Barney-esque figure, Mr. Bungee (Bradley Greenwald). After questioning his life choices and unable to complete a host of songs for the show, Gordon ends up being hospitalized for an arteriovenous malformation in his brain. Most of the show happens inside the hospital with Gordon’s lover Roger (C Ryan Shipley), mother Mimi Schwinn (Jen Burleigh-Bentz), agent/friend Rhoda, Doctor Jafar Berensteiner (Rodolfo Nieto), the nice and the thin nurses (Evan Tyler Wilson and Sara DeYong), and a minister (Reese Britts). On trips to and around the hospital, Roger and Gordon encounter a homeless woman (Mary Palazzolo).
First off, this cast is having FUN. A New Brain (surprising precisely no one who has seen it) is deeply autobiographical—William Finn (who wrote the music and lyrics) suffered a very similar harrowing experience and wrote large portions of A New Brain during his recovery period. It is this specificity that both helps and harms the book – while parts feel ripped from lived experience in a fun, bleeding kind of way, other parts feel needlessly pedantic (a bit like getting a story from a small child where this happened and this this happened and then this happened…). However, even in the sections that an editor should have helped Finn remove, this cast’s resolve to pour all of themselves into the execution makes for a very enjoyable night.
McNutt’s Gordon is neurotic and lovable; he also sings most of this play. I am not sure how he has memorized all of the small interludes as well as his solo numbers, but it is an impressive feat. He is charming in this role. Shipley as Gordon’s lover, Roger, portrays him as caring and un-phased– not nearly as gullible as he initially looks, and perfectly bedecked in northeastern sailing gear, his love for Gordon transcends Gordon’s constant worry that his creative output is not sufficient. Burleigh-Bentz gives one of the best performances of the evening. Portraying a (rather stereotypical) Jewish mother (with songs like “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine” and “Throw it Out”), her powerhouse voice and perfect emotional vocal cracks make her a pleasure to watch. As the hospital ensemble, Nieto, Wilson, DeYong, and Britts are campy and clearly enjoying themselves. As both an ethereal projection of Gordon’s worries manifest as Mr. Bungee and as his own delightfully awful self, Greenwald as Mr. Bungee is hysterical. His well-timed physical comedy, manically twinkling eyes, and ever escalating petulance are precisely what they should be. Palazzolo gives one of the best musical performances of the evening, but to me both the pedantic nature of this autobiographical book and its age are painfully evident in the way this character is written. She is a bystander to the action, without a character arch and often feels inconsistently rendered. I think that our collective conversations about poverty and the need for agency would have caused Finn to portray this character differently if the book was written now. That she is comprehensible and relatable is a clear testament to Palazzolo’s skill and star power.
This, in some respects, A New Brain feels like a piece by theater people for theater people. I have seen so many of these actors in other shows, but very rarely does the script allow them so much play.
A New Brain is a hero’s journey wrapped around an impossible number of crunchy-yet-satisfying rhymes: virginity-->affinity, more ready-->spaghetti, oceanic-->Satanic. While I am not sure if I would seek out this book, I would let this cast take me anywhere. A New Brain plays at Artistry until November 9th.