by John Stoltenberg

In Signature Theatre‘s sleek and shiny new production of Company—the show that tunefully triggers everyone’s anxiety and ambivalence about marriage—DC theater has once again bested Broadway. Or at least the two Broadway productions I’ve seen: the early-70s original starring Larry Kert as the unhappily unwed Bobby and the 2006 revival starring Raúl Esparza. Signature’s is way better.

Maybe it’s because the Company company seems to be enjoying one another’s company onstage. (Really, that sentence needed all the company it could get—as do we all, or so the show says.)  Each of the five couples seems recognizable and real, even when they’re not the focus of a scene. More important, they seem genuinely fond of Bobby; and he, of them. Even Bobby’s three unproposed-to paramours are having a romp. The effect on the audience of this intracast lovefest is, I think, the production’s secret sauce. Because without that key ingredient, the recipe as written (George Furth’s astringent book and Stephen Sondheim’s ascerbic lyrics) could easily be more cynical than charming, more bitter than bittersweet, and all in all a bit hard to swallow.

There’s a really annoying convention in comedies devised to tickle the funny bone of middle-age-and-up Broadway audiences: infantile jokes about marriage, about divorce, about adultery, about shrewish wives, about feckless husbands—gags that can make one gag—all tied up in the end in a sentimental affirmation of the conjugal bond.  Ha-ha, goes the crowd. And whew, I didn’t have to reflect too deeply about the problems in my own marriage(s).

Company is not like that. Company is a very different theater experience. Company is rather in your face, actually. It engages you because it reflects in-real-life relationship difficulties. It reminds you of your own, maybe. It makes you go hmmmm. And then it makes you leave the theater humming its wonderful tunes.

Signature artistic director Eric Shaeffer’s casting and direction are brilliant. The entire ensemble, led by the endearing Matthew Scott as Bobby, is a delight. The orchestra, extraordinary. The costumes and set design, stunning.

I do have a quibble, though, about the five projection screens on the upstage wall. They needed to go dark much more often than they did. They distracted from the  performances and they rarely contributed anything worthy of note—especially all the arty photos of New York City. I kept wanting to scream: I know we’re in Manhattan! I don’t need reminding like some hick in the hinterlands. The script tells me everything I need to know about where we are. Would you please just shut off so I can enjoy this great show?

So my advice if you go—and you really, really should—is don’t pay attention to those literalist illuminations. They say nothing, they add nothing, and you won’t miss a thing if you ignore them.