Altared States

Back in 1970, when Stephen Sondheim's musical Company first opened on Broadway, hardly anybody except long-haired hippies had the audacity to question the sanctity of marriage. But Sondheim always has been an iconoclast, and when he got together with writer George Furth to create the story of Robert, an angst-ridden single New Yorker who wonders whether marriage is worth it, the composer made musical-theater history. The production, which marked the first of many enormously successful collaborations between Sondheim and director Hal Prince, won seven Tony Awards.

Perhaps Robert's worries are a bit dated. These days, lots of people choose not to get hitched. Thirty years after its inception, Company still packs an emotional punch, and the seminal questions it poses about the freewheeling loneliness of single life versus the psychological vise grip of "holy matrimony" ring achingly true. Stages' production of this marital dilemma, led by a likably befuddled Ilich Guardiola as Robert, slowly but surely winds its way to the painful center of those questions.

Robert is in the middle of his 35th birthday party. All his friends are there, all couples, all happy. Well, sort of. When he blows out the candles on his big white cake, we are spun into the tiny humdrum worlds in which they live together.

Sarah (Susan Oltmanns-Koozin) and Harry (Richard Calvert) argue incessantly. He's on the wagon; she's on a diet. An evening at their house ends with the two of them wrestling on the rug, trying to outdo each other. Susan (Pippa Winslow) and Peter (Jimmy F. Phillips) are the perfect couple. She's a Southern peach in flowered dresses who simply adores her husband, who in return waits on her hand and foot. Imagine Robert's shock once he finds out they're getting a friendly divorce.

Jenny (Susan Shofner) and David (Tom Prior) get wild and high one night with Robert. But the party's over as soon as Jenny realizes how far she's gone. She picks up her child's tricycle to put it away (the one she's been riding through her living room) and sends Robert home, embarrassed by her indiscretions. Only Amy (Deborah Hope) and Joanne (Connie Cooper) seem to share Robert's discomfort with tying the knot.

Hope and Cooper do a wonderful job with these wickedly indecisive women, who both loathe and love all the rigmarole of marriage. Michael Scheman's sometimes overwrought direction is sharpest in their numbers. Hope's "Getting Married Today," a breathless and hilarious race of a song, in which Amy calls off her impending marriage, keeps the audience hooting with laughter. Cooper's rendering of "The Ladies Who Lunch," a tough-as-nails tune about the way marriage infantilizes women who lose themselves in their wifely identities, is chilling in its ferocity.

Through each encounter Robert worries that if he were to marry he'd have to give up too much: "If you get married, you've got another person there all the time." But then again, he notes, "alone is alone not alive."

These are the paradoxes of the human condition that Sondheim captures so wonderfully. As the song says, marriage makes you "sorry grateful" and "grateful sorry."

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Lee Williams