See What I Wanna See, currently playing at the Public Theater, leaves its audience with many questions to ask. However, none of them deal with largely unresolved mysteries comprising Michael John LaChiusa’s plot. Instead, said questions appear more like “What was the point of that?” “Why did they do that?” “Did that mean anything at all?” As a result, See becomes more of a whatwasit than a whodunit.
Overburdened by thought and cleverness that borders on clumsiness, See wobbles and occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its pretension. LaChiusa, one of the most challenging voices in current musical theater (The Wild Party, First Lady Suite) adapts See from stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese author whose nearly century-old work inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. In fact, the main feature of his first act is a loose retelling of that classic film, here entitled “R Shomon,” for the action revolves around a 1951 murder taking place as a husband (Marc Kudisch) and wife (Idina Menzel) return home from a showing of the movie (where the second letter has fallen off of the marquee, thus giving the segment its title).
A scene from See What I Wanna See
“R Shomon” develops – and also, in a sense, degenerates – into a kind of pentagonal storytelling as five characters, Kudisch’s thug, Menzel’s moll, as well as a janitor (Henry Stram), a thief (Aaron Lohr), and a medium who communicates with the dead (the brilliant Mary Testa) all bear witness to the murder, all with differing results. The point of the original Rashomon was that not a single one of the narrators’ versions could be trusted as the truth; we were led to believe it lay somewhere in between. In See, LaChiusa’s quintet is equally unreliable, but there is no telling exactly who the real perpetrator is, and without clarifying what his or her real motivation was, there is no glue to make this act coherent. Additionally, the notions of disgrace and honor that gave the film its spine seem merely parenthetical here.
Fragmented and unsatisfying as it may be, LaChiusa’s first act and its focus on truth are still more conventional than See’s second, “Gloryday,” set in the present but still addressing the hazy, questioning aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In this update of Akugatawa’s story “The Dragon,” a priest (Stram) loses his faith and dupes the public into thinking that God will make an appearance in Central Park. Tony-winner Menzel (Wicked), never quite convincing as the chanteuse, redeems herself as an actress with questionable morals, while New York stage stalwart Kudisch, shows off his magnificent baritone but cannot salvage the silly role of a successful CPA-turned-hobo with which he is saddled. Both Stram and Lohr (in this act, a guilty television journalist) are stronger in “Gloryday,” yet all cast members are dwarfed by Testa, as the priest’s atheistic aunt. Jumbled as the book of See may be, LaChiusa proves his mettle with her two numbers, “The Greatest Practical Joke,” Aunt Monica’s explanation of religion’s over-importance, and its bookend, the soaring “There Will Be a Miracle.”
Marc Kudisch and Idina Menzel
Both acts begin with the tale of Kesa and Morito (Menzel and Kudisch), a confusing tale of adultery, murder and suicide that echoes “R Shomon”’s themes of fractured truth. Structurally unnecessary, the brief vignettes do feature excellent technical work from set designer Thomas Lynch, costumer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind.
LaChiusa, too, is to be given much credit for his creation: he aims for an extremely high degree of difficulty but isn’t nimble enough to navigate See without a few stumbles. Yet his irreverent voice continues to have a great deal of power and thought to it. We need people like him so that those on stage still have something to sing about.