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A bathtub, a baby grand piano, a trampoline, a disco ball, full nudity, pop songs. There’s a whole lot happening on stage in Big Love, Charles Mee’s sunny, carnival-like update of the classic Aeschylus drama The Danaids. But one of the chief virtues of Tina Landau’s new revival, running through March 15 at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre at Pershing Square, is its kitchen-sink over-the-topness.
The story seems to spring from, well, Patricia Arquette’s Oscar acceptance speech about women’s rights. We meet three of 50 sisters on the run from their home in Greece, where their father has arranged a group wedding to 50 cousins that they reject as coercion. Cue a heartfelt rendition of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” (Really.) They have washed up on the shores of Italy to seek sanctuary at a well-appointed manor house with an initially sympathetic owner (Christopher Innvar), his long-suffering mother (Sex and the City alum Lynn Cohen), and his fey fashionisto nephew (Preston Sadleir).
Then the would-be grooms show up, seemingly paratrooping onto Brett Banakis’ cleverly designed stage set. They seek to kickstart the wedding in ways that come naturally to them: mostly through brute force. The three couples we meet are well-matched, dramaturgically speaking. There’s a pair of dim bulbs, Oed (Emmanuel Brown) and Olympia (Libby Winters), a born follower who’s obsessed with weddings and tradition (and, naturally, the blonde of the group). There are the hard cases on both sides of the gender-politics divide: uber-chauvinist Constantine (a wonderfully cocky Ryan-James Hatanaka) and the equally strident feminist warrior Thyona (Stacey Sargeant), who hatches a plan to kill all the would-be grooms rather than submit to male domination. And then there are the genuine lovebirds, played by the musical-theater vets Bobby Steggert and Rebecca Naomi Jones, projecting earnest romanticism more than passion.
The cast throws itself into the material — literally — hurling themselves onto the stage and into walls, with Austin Switser’s projections providing the illusion of shattered glass to punctuate the effect. Just when you think that the production threatens to derail with its manic combo of physicality, broad humor, and breaks for pop numbers (from Michael Jackson to Imagine Dragons to Nico & Vinz), a more serious point emerges about the intractability of gender roles, the moral challenge posed by refugees, and the nature of justice. What is our obligation to strangers? Does the ability to do good ever turn into obligation? Like many of Charles Mee’s plays, this is a circus big-top presentation of some very Big Ideas. Grade: B