Theater review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ at the Geffen Playhouse

There’s a moment in “Nightmare Alley,” the Geffen Playhouse’s tepid new musical, when the antihero, a spiritualist preacher, urges his lover to put on a good show for their latest marks: “Give ‘em the mystery, build the tension,” he says.

But mystery and tension are in short supply in this promising yet unfocused world premiere. A strong premise, solid cast and often-appealing score don’t quite come together to make “Nightmare” the satisfying, dark entertainment it wants to be.

With a book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle, “Nightmare” is based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel about a Depression-era hustler who becomes a mentalist and preacher. Legend has it that while fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War, adventurer Gresham met an ex-carny who spilled the secrets of his seamy trade, and the 1947 Tyrone Power film adaptation scandalized critics for its unsavory depiction of carnival life.


For this new stage version, the Geffen has been transformed. Multicolored lights stretch from the stage to the back on the house, illuminating old-fashioned sideshow posters for acts such as the Frog Boy and the Fat Lady. John Arnone’s carnival tent set consists of shabby striped curtains, conveying a sense of too many nights on the road and a business built on legerdemain. It’s immediately engaging, and you’re all set to be hoodwinked. Zeena (Mary Gordon Murray) appears before the curtain, wielding Tarot cards and the night’s theme: Are we driven by fate to make the choices we do, or can we ever know ourselves enough to change?

Drawn to the sideshow, Stan (James Barbour) heckles Zeena, who immediately pegs him for a preacher’s son. Intrigued, Stan sticks around, meeting Zeena’s alcoholic husband and former stage swami Pete (Larry Cedar) and the comely Molly (Sarah Glendening), whose electrocution act causes her to gasp and twitch in a highly suggestive manner. Soon after, an accident happens that will seal Stan’s fate, although the moment itself isn’t particularly well-framed (certainly not vivid enough to drive Stan’s guilt for two acts). Stan joins the troupe and is bringing in big dollars by spiffing up tired acts. But his unease remains, driving him to bigger and bigger cons, and his ironic end.

Carnival stories are notoriously tricky to pull off; think of mixed successes such as “Side Show,” Jodie Foster and Robbie Robertson in “Carny,” or HBO’s hermetic “Carnivàle.” The theatricality of circus acts often overshadows the offstage drama, and you end up with more atmosphere than story arc. The performers tend to be more fun as fakes than human beings with real problems. (In Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” the romantic leads seem vastly less human — and less sympathetic — than the pinheads and dwarves who surround them.)

The pleasure we’re promised in “Nightmare” is a chance to go behind the curtain to learn the wizard’s secrets: There’s no power like knowing someone else better than they know themselves. Yet this fascinating crash course in people reading never quite materializes. When I go to a show called “Nightmare Alley,” I expect at least one shiver up my spine. I’ve ordered coffee beverages at Starbucks more perverse than this show.

Stan can see into the heart of anyone — except himself, of course, and thereby hangs the tale. “Nightmare” wants to be the portrait of a con man peddling a salvation he can’t claim for himself. Despite Geffen artistic director Gilbert Cates at the helm, the piece never finds a stirring dramatic through line. Stan’s struggle always feels slightly remote. The show gets stranded between the narrative expectations of a conventional musical and something more offbeat and conceptual, like “Tommy.” The result is an evening low on soul, despite the considerable talent involved.

Barbour, who won accolades for his work in “A Tale of Two Cities,” has a big voice and real presence as Stan. He growls his way through the role, vaguely channeling Russell Crowe, and is at his best when he gives himself over to his charlatan persona. (I could have used one more big barnstorming speech where Stan lets his power really roll.) The red-haired Glendening, who recalls a young Julianne Moore, has an innocence that never feels cloying and a clear, expressive soprano. Their duets, particularly the medley “Why Don’t You Hear Me?/Nobody Home/I Still Hear It All” in Act 2, are among the evening’s strongest moments. She and Barbour have chemistry, though oddly the production lacks romantic heat.

The doubling of cast members yields mixed results. Murray is sharp as a steely psychiatrist on the make, but her Tarot-wielding Zeena reads more like a Tarzana psychic than a Dust Bowl flimflammer. The usually reliable Larry Cedar hasn’t quite found a credible take on Pete and fares better in a dress as Addie Peabody, a grieving mother yearning to communicate with her departed daughter. Veteran character actor Michael McCarty gets the tone just right as Clem, the sideshow barker, and as Ezra Grimble, a sentimental millionaire mourning a youthful love. All look smart in Christina Haatainen Jones’ crisply tailored ‘30s suits and bias-cut carnival costumes.

Musical director Gerald Sternbach, playing a campy keyboard stage right, keeps his five-piece orchestra on tempo. (The orchestration is by Irwin Fisch.) Brielle’s best work isn’t always his straight songs; it’s the sung-through sections, where dialogue and music weave together in restless ways, that his talent reveals itself. (Wit lurks somewhere in this production — check out the headline on the “Variety” Clem is reading in Act 2.)

Despite the show’s unevenness, its final image — creepy and inevitable — suggests the diabolical vibe Brielle wants to access. Geffen favorite Ricky Jay was in the house on opening night. One only wishes that this master magician’s signature qualities — the ability to weave a spellbinding tale out of thin air, a sense of the unexpected, old-school gravitas — were more on view inside “Nightmare” 's carnival tent.