Once in a while, you get to have an experience in the theatre that is thoroughly satisfying. Every now and then, the experience is completely original. Occasionally, a movie is transplanted to the stage and works.
Once, now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop, is that infrequent experience.
It isn’t a revolutionary script. It isn’t much of a story at all. It is not merely a some-enchanted-evening, nor the magical onceness of serendipity that sustains the evening. Once is about wants, the pure human desires and regrets and promises unfulfilled that plague and paralyze each of us. That is why the music haunts instead of whines. The subtext is Shakespearean, the text is fragile.
Steve Karzee, as the Guy, doesn’t act. He inhabits the aching. He broods without petulance. He is so effortlessly believable and vulnerable that he kills softly, strumming our pain and other cliches without cliche. And the words, that could easily have descended into complaint rock, bleed and break as truly as the heartiest among us.
Cristin Milioti, the Girl who breathes life into a stranger and whose honesty arrests then paroles the Guy’s heart, is amazing in a role that could have been 2 hours of nails on a chalkboard. She has the mystique to make you fall in love with your kidnapper—and her lushious voice cradles every break in your spirit.
The large cast, integral though only loosely integrated, are multi-talented, playing multiple instruments and roles and creating vital environment to a piece that is largely environmental. The Director, John Tiffany, is smart enough to showcase them for nearly a half-hour before curtain as they take the stage singing a series of bar songs on the stage that has been converted into a bar—functioning and serving alcoholic beverages before the show and at intermission. They set a perfect tone of fun and exuberance that makes the subtle strip into the full exposure of the opening number all the more gripping.
Fitting that the empty bar, the symbol of drowning in wants on the rocks, frames the open stage where the action can move through time and space unencumbered. This cinematic flow befits a film turned stage production, but more importantly it befits this production. Once hits every note beautifully.
There is talk of Once moving to Broadway, but it is so perfectly realized at NYTW that you should catch it there before the towering bar loses its majesty in a more majestic house. Something this good only comes along once and a while. I already have my ticket to see it again. Once was not enough.