Jonathan doesn’t want to be just a successful playwright. The main character in “tick, tick … BOOM!,” the musical that runs at the Hamilton Stage of the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway through Feb. 8, wants to write a work that will not just make it to Broadway, but function as a “cultural lightning rod.”
An impossible dream? Apparently not. The man who wrote “tick, tick … BOOM!” — and who clearly based Jonathan upon himself — was Jonathan Larson, and Larson went on to write a musical, “Rent,” that was, actually, something of a cultural lightning rod.
It’s impossible not to think about that as you watch “tick, tick … BOOM!”, just as it’s impossible not to feel sad that Larson never got to experience the validation he was craving. (He died at 35 of an undiagnosed heart defect the morning that “Rent” previewed off-Broadway.)
But your next thought very well might be that if Larson hadn’t gone on to do anything else, no one would be all that interested in producing “tick, tick … BOOM!” (the name comes from the imaginary clock in Jonathan’s head, counting the seconds as his life passes him by). There are some good songs in it, and some clever writing, but it feels like the work of an artist who, like Jon himself, shows promise, but isn’t quite there yet.
The main problem is with the main character. Jonathan (played by Nicholas Park) is so whiny and self-involved you wonder how anyone else puts up with him — particularly his girlfriend Susan (Shannon O’Boyle), a dancer and dance teacher who wants to ditch New York City for the burbs, and his best friend Michael (Michael Luwoye), who has abandoned his own artistic aspirations for a lucrative job in market research.
There’s graffiti on the walls, and a rock band at the back of the stage (it’s one of Jonathan’s goals to bring rock to Broadway). AIDS rears its ugly head, and there are references to other facts of late-’80s New York life, including a crack about Broadway tickets costing the exorbitant sum of $50.
Like “Rent,” “tick, tick … BOOM!” will give you some sense of what it’s like to live in a crappy downtown apartment, slaving at a day job while trying to get the world to notice your talent (“Everyone we know wants to be something else,” Jonathan laments). Unlike the world of “Rent,” though, this world doesn’t seem alive with possibilities, just teeming with frustrations. Jonathan’s diner job is a hellish ordeal, he doesn’t seem to have any real connection with Susan, and even his vice (gobbling Twinkies) doesn’t seem all that fun. O’Boyle and Luwoye play other people in his life, too, including his clueless parents and useless agent.
There are some satisfying moments in the play, including a scene in which Jonathan and Michael bounce ecstatically around Michael’s new luxury apartment, as if drunk on real estate; and “Therapy,” a clever, tongue-twisting Jonathan/Susan duet about the deep neuroses of their relationship. Jonathan has a touching moment toward the end, where he sits on the side of the stage and sings about his deep love for the theater. The play’s other big second-act ballad, “Come to Your Senses,” is not as powerful, since O’Boyle sings it as another character (an actress in the “Superbia” workshop), and not as Susan.
Certainly, anyone who is a fan of “Rent” should see “tick, tick … BOOM!” at least once. And surely, anyone who is involved in the theater will see some of their life reflected in it.
But what would Larson think about it, if he were still alive? I believe he’d laugh at the person he was, and be glad he doesn’t have to deal with all that anymore. Similarly, I think he’d be pleased that someone thought highly enough about the play to produce it again. But I bet he’d cringe a little, if he had to watch it.
“tick, tick … BOOM!” runs at the Hamilton Stage through Feb. 8; for information and tickets, click here.