The floor design is a large, circular firing-range target. From time to time as the misbegotten gunmen (and women) in the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical revue Assassins stand on the periphery of the Ivory Theatre stage, their shadows resemble Valentine hearts that caress the target's red bull's-eye. It's no matter whether this illusion occurs by accident or design. Either way the point is made: America's obsession with guns is a veritable love affair.
Assassins is the most audacious entry in the entire Sondheim canon, which now extends for more than 50 years. The intermissionless evening is composed of a series of vignettes that purport to enter the idiosyncratic minds of nine shadowy iconoclasts who have sought to snuff out the life of America's most public bureaucrat. Some of their gunfire (as when John Wilkes Booth drilled a hole into Abraham Lincoln) has altered history; other shots resulted in no more than a tick on the presidential seismograph. (The murder of James Garfield moved Chester Arthur into the White House.)
But the show's primary intent is not to chronicle. Instead it portrays gun-toting America as a crazed arcade. Our enticing host, the nameless Balladeer (Andrew Keller) is an appealing midway barker who lures the dispossessed and the downtrodden into his shooting gallery with the persuasively melodic message, "Everybody's got the right to their dreams," a song that turns the Horatio Alger myth on its ear and then kicks it in the groin.
Considering how original and even bizarre this material is, it's disappointing that the current New Line production lacks the intensity, fervor and passion that is required if these misfits are to sustain interest. Director Scott Miller has done all he can to break down the fourth wall that separates actor from audience; he's brought the show as far front as possible. He even has the assassins emerge from the audience, which makes the point that the potential to murder exists in our neighbors, even closer to home ("The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves"). But there is no moment here where you hold your breath in suspense. Assassins proves to be an uncomfortable fit in the Ivory Theatre playing space.
On the other hand, for those looking to put another notch into their Sondheim gun belts, here at least is an infrequent opportunity to see one of his least-staged musicals. There's no way you can listen to this music and not know it's Sondheim. His rapturously lyric manner is especially evident in "Unworthy of Your Love," a lush ballad of romantic yearning sung by John Hinckley Jr. (Jeffrey M. Wright) to Jodie Foster and by Squeaky Fromme (Amy Kelly) to Charles Manson. "How I Saved Roosevelt," which chronicles an attempt on the life of president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, was clearly inspired by the stunning "Someone in a Tree" in Pacific Overtures (another Sondheim-Weidman collaboration).
Despite the sketch-comedy fun that permeates the evening, the show's cynical and unsettling message is unmistakable. Sondheim has never been one to cater to the crowd. Assassins is part of an extensive arc that begins with the manic Mama Rose in Gypsy, continues with the lunatics-taking-over-the-asylum motif of Anyone Can Whistle and proceeds to the slaughterhouse bloodbath of Sweeney Todd. If anyone other than Sondheim had written this piece, it might have been dismissed as pretentious. But he is the defining theater composer of our generation, an authentic voice, and anything he has to say merits hearing. Although Assassins premiered eighteen years ago, a lyric like "All you have to do is move your little finger, and you can change the world" makes a bolder, blunter statement about our frontier society than everything we've heard on this subject from all of this year's pursuers of the White House combined.