The intertwined lives of Frédéric Chopin, George Sand and Eugéne Delacroix are not entirely unfamiliar to the majority of us, thanks to movies such as "Impromptu" and the public lore which inevitably follows those who are most charismatic, even hundreds of years after their deaths. The latest production penned by Hershey Felder (known for his previous acclaimed work in "George Gershwin Alone") at the American Repertory Theatre, however, is a work apart. It largely ignores the traditionally-revered moments in human interaction: the dynamics of meeting and falling in love as a friend, a lover, or both. Instead, "Romantique" explores the end of one of the most famous love affairs of all time, and in doing so expresses love, yes, but also loss and the very human importance of emotional support. The very risk it takes is its greatest triumph.
Felder plays famous polish pianist Chopin, holed up with lover Sand (the infamous authoress who dressed in man’s clothes in order to be taken seriously by the Parisian community of the 1830s and 40s) in her home in Nohant for the summer in an effort to force the consumption which plagued Chopin’s life into temporary retreat. There they are joined for a single day by Delacroix, a prolific painter and common friend. Far from a romantic vacation, the play details the imminent destruction of Chopin’s relationship with Sand, and by extension the estrangement of the three.
As a result, the emotions on stage seem so real (with few notable exceptions) and the bickering and language so common that we witness before us not the extravagant lives of three famous artists, but the plain lives of three humans. And then, in a wink, the play lets us experience the writings of Sand or the vision of Delacroix - or in several instances, the brilliant playing of Chopin (as played by Felder). These reflective moments may occasionally pause the central action, and for the first half hour they provide a sort of artistic whiplash between the flesh and the art... but eventually the juxtaposition resolves into a potent theme.
The talent onstage is tremendous; Felder is perhaps the least expressive actor, but in the role of the reserved Chopin he’s just the right blend of suppressed anger and weakness. His piano work is in many cases the highlight of the show. Zimbalist is both droll and dynamic as Sand; she drives the show forward and evokes empathy with a difficult character. Crivello, playing the role of the "third wheel" and approximate narrator for the piece, more than lives up to his host of awards from Tony to Drama Critics.
The weak points have nothing to do with performance. The script is a little overdrawn in parts, particularly in the ending, which drags out a bit. Additional writing weakness can occasionally be seen in the sudden, sometimes unmotivated, shifts in the relationship between Sand and Chopin. Yes, couples get aggravated with each other, but the way these two turn to grinding out hateful words - it’s hard to swallow at points. And Joel Zwick’s direction and blocking largely lacks the dramatic insistence of the performances and the script - I was not sure why.
But in true A.R.T. tradition, we’re left not even contemplating tiny shortcomings. Instead, we consider our deepening curiousity with a play which, despite its dark subject matter, is uplifting in its messages of love and care. "When you love someone," states Sand as she gazes on Chopin at his piano, "all you want is for him to shine." She speaks to the gift of intention and support she gives to him - and "Romantique" does no less for its audience.