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Second Hand News

Julieta Cervantes

From left: Tom Pecinka as Peter, Sarah Pidgeon as Diana, Chris Stack as Simon, Eli Gelb as Grover, Juliana Canfield as Holly, Andrew R. Butler as Charlie, and Will Brill as Reg in David Adjmi's Stereophonic, 2024

Partway through David Adjmi’s new narrative play, Stereophonic, five musicians and singers, assembled behind a recording studio’s glass window, workshop their new material live on stage. They start and stop, allowing the flame of their artistry to die out and reignite as they try out ideas. Awash in Jiyoun Chang’s immaculate lighting design, the band looks as if it’s practicing at the bottom of a red or purple swimming pool.

The number they are attempting to nail is halfway between Fleetwood Mac and early-Aughts indie rock—appropriately, since it was composed by Will Butler, a former member of Arcade Fire. Two audio producers seated at the set’s sound board watch the band, their backs to us. The song’s delicate keyboard riff cuts through a storm of guitars and drums, as the lyrics evoke the return of some familiar danger or longing (“Whatever wakes you in the morning/whatever keeps you up at night”). Just when the collaboration is reaching a new level of intensity, the lead vocalist calls out to stop. “You came in a measure early again,” she informs one of the two guitarists with a note of desperation.

Adjmi’s play—a three-hour-long collection of loosely associated episodes in the life of a fictional mid-Seventies band recording an album in Sausalito and, later, Los Angeles—features many similar moments of live performance. They are the high points of Stereophonic, which last fall had a successful run at Playwright’s Horizons that received almost unanimous critical praise. A couple weeks after its Broadway debut earlier this spring, it was nominated for thirteen Tonys, the most of any play in the award’s history.

Julieta Cervantes

From left: Juliana Canfield as Holly, Eli Gelb as Grover, Tom Pecinka as Peter, Will Brill as Reg, Sarah Pidgeon as Diana, Andrew R. Butler as Charlie, and Chris Stack as Simon in David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, 2024

Under the direction of Daniel Aukin, the women in the band strut robotically around David Zinn’s pristine wood-paneled cocoon of a set, while the men move about in relaxed, lounging style. All wear denim at first, usually bellbottoms; toward the end several are in vests. The cumulative visual effect recalls that of those Sims expansion packs with a decades theme. The meandering dialogue, as in many of Adjmi’s plays, is full of precise line overlaps, a method that suits some scenes better than others. When multiple side-chats happen at the same time, it nicely conveys the manic studio atmosphere; when characters carry on long conversations in which they do nothing but artfully talk over each other, the result is self-conscious enough to clash with the show’s reigning documentary vibe.  

As many critics have noted, Stereophonic clearly draws inspiration from the making of Fleetwood Mac’s enormously successful 1977 album Rumours, the second created by the group’s best-known roster: Lindsey Buckingham (lead guitar, vocals), Stevie Nicks (vocals, tambourine), Christine McVie (vocals, keyboard), John McVie (bass), and Mick Fleetwood (drums). The band in the play has no name and its members have new ones, but their personae and relationships to one another are essentially the same.

Diana (Sarah Pidgeon), like Nicks, prides herself on her songwriting gifts and pouts over never having mastered any instruments aside from tambourine and triangle. She’s in a crumbling relationship with her fellow American bandmate Peter (Tom Pecinka), who displays classic Lindsey-Buckingham-in-the-Seventies-traits: imperious, unstable, and talented. Holly (Julianna Canfield) and Reg (Will Brill), two-thirds of the band’s British faction, are slowly breaking up, mostly on account of Reg’s reckless drinking (in other words, they are the McVies), and Simon (Chris Stack), the drummer, learns in the course of the play that his wife is leaving him and taking the kids with her, the fate that befell Fleetwood while recording Rumours.

The scenes in Stereophonic in which the band members grind away in the recording booth are hypnotic and soothing. I could watch them call out for more reverb all day long. Each of the characters gets their moment to throw their little tantrum over a special sonic annoyance. And yet the group’s close resemblance to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac makes it all the more glaring that nobody talks onstage about the band’s particular vision for their album, nor what drew them together in the first place, aside from contractual obligations and a mutual love of snorting cocaine from a comically oversized bag. “We’re such a good band!” Simon yelps at the end of the second act. “I’m passionate,” Diana tells Peter. “I care, you know I care.” But what makes this band so good, and what do they care about?

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Adjmi, a child of the Seventies, was raised among the Syrian Jewish community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood. His memoir, Lot Six (2020), details an agonized youth spent rejected and misunderstood by some members of his family and pretty much everyone at the local yeshiva he attended: “Whatever strangeness I possessed innately was set in blunt relief against the straitlaced normalcy of the other students who debated hotly the kosherness of Funyuns and Snickers bars.” Clearly Adjmi mined the observational powers of a bright misfit to write his breakout show, Stunning, which premiered in 2008. In it a spoiled and naive newlywed of sixteen begins questioning the authority of her much older husband and has an affair with the woman she hires to clean her Midwood house. The story is suspenseful, the dialogue has a brash, frantic rhythm, and even the stage directions are vivid (one directs the newlywed and her girlfriends to sport “meretriciously loud bangles”).

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More recently Adjmi has turned toward experimental parodies. 3C (2012) spoofs the television series Three’s Company, and Marie Antoinette (2012) reads like a whimsical history lesson (sometimes the French monarch converses with a sheep). Stereophonic, in contrast, is not framed as parody or a historical recitation. Admji has maintained in interviews that the unnamed band is meant to be fictional, a pastiche of disparate influences: recently he told The Forward that aspects of Fleetwood Mac’s “romantic entanglements” made their way into his play “but it was unconscious.” Elsewhere he has cited as inspirations Keith Richards’ memoir, the Led Zeppelin song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and autobiographical experiences. Why, then, hew so closely to documented accounts of one particular band?

Julieta Cervantes

Sarah Pidgeon as Diana, Juliana Canfield as Holly, and Tom Pecinka as Peter in David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, 2024

The most recent book on the making of Rumours is called Making Rumours (2012). It was written by Ken Caillat (father of the pop singer Colbie Caillat), who, much like Grover (Eli Gelb) in Stereophonic, was promoted from coengineer to coproducer in the course of working on the album. (He coauthored the book with Steven Stiefel.) A significant number of plot beats and narrative details from Adjmi’s play are mirrored in the pages of Caillat’s book. For instance, Caillat writes that Nicks didn’t want to shave four minutes off her breakup ballad “Silver Springs,” but the album was too long and she already had more songs on Rumours than anyone else; Diana faces the same predicament. Elsewhere in the book Caillat recounts a tense incident in which Buckingham took the liberty of recording McVie’s bass part himself, the way he wanted it to sound, as Peter does with Reg’s part. Caillat also claims that Buckingham once pressured him to record over a guitar riff in the hopes that his next take would be even better. Caillat did what he was asked. Then Buckingham decided he liked the previous take after all, but it no longer existed, so he vented his frustration at Caillat by screaming in his face—an exchange nearly identical to one in the play between Peter and Grover.

Comparing how these anecdotes come across in the book and in the play helps bring the shallowness of Adjmi’s character development into focus. The somewhat repetitive and mundane scenes of composing, bitching, fighting, and fiddling in Making Rumours hold interest because of Fleetwood Mac’s music. A fictional play doesn’t have the luxury of drawing from a monumental body of work or relying on a public’s long-term relationship with specific songs, the kind of devotion that has driven many a fan to sit patiently through a middling jukebox musical. The challenge for Stereophonic was to reverse-engineer this electric connection with dialogue captivating, specific, and unusual enough to make us curious about music composed by a bunch of made-up people.

The play fails to meet that difficult task. Some of Stereophonic’s vignettes sail along fine on pleasant chitchat of the sort that keeps all workplace scenarios afloat. Reg goes on an intoxicated spiel about a local zoning dispute; Holly divulges her recipe for custard; one of the two sound guys, Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), gossips with Grover about some musicians a buddy of his worked with.

Julieta Cervantes

Andrew R. Butler as Charlie and Eli Gelb as Grover in David Adjmi’s Stereophonic, 2024

But too often Adjmi leans on clichés to illustrate the show’s deeper currents. “Any relationship is a series of negotiations,” Holly posits during a summit with Diana about the state of their romantic lives. “That’s what it is, you’re negotiating to get something, and in return you give something, and that’s the bargain.” In fact, that’s what a bargain always is. Brill can squeeze the maximum amount of comedy out of every line he’s given, but some of his character’s musings—such as “I want to be around people who I love and who love me; you can give up on a person but you can’t ever, ever give up on love”—can’t possibly land. In a heated conversation about whose contributions are most important to the band, Peter accuses Simon of hating him, and Simon observes that he’s being a bit unprofessional. “Oh right, you’re a professional, you’re holding it all together,” shouts Peter in Pecinka’s relentless monotone. “Cause you’re the daddy right? You’re the big man? Well if you’re such a great dad, where are your kids?” The audience gasped at that line, which sounded to me as if it could have been lifted from a Lifetime movie.

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Occasionally Adjmi dangles an isolated detail from a character’s painful backstory, as if to help explain their present behavior. Peter is one of the only bandmates whose childhood is remarked upon. His father made the young musician feel like he could never measure up, in part by encouraging too much competition between Peter and his brother (as with the real Lindsey Buckingham, Peter’s brother is an Olympic-level swimmer). In the show’s second half we learn that Holly’s mother was a primary school teacher and that Grover was raised by a single mother. “If you don’t learn, you suffer. My dad walked out when I was a kid, and that’s what my mom told me,” Grover says to Charlie, a revelation that is not to be examined further.

“I want to live in art,” Reg declares during one of his drunken ramblings, and in the dark of the theater a cast of characters has no other option than to do just that. Ideally they live inside good art. It’s a shame that, lovely as the music in Stereophonic is, the play doesn’t have much to say about the people who make it.


Stereophonic is at the Golden Theatre through August 18.

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