‘Breathe’ Review: A Pandemic Musical That Strains to Surprise

Still, “Fever” is a pleasant enough opening, and Benton and Carbajal, directed by Emily Maltby, make it look smooth and easy. That’s pret...


Still, “Fever” is a pleasant enough opening, and Benton and Carbajal, directed by Emily Maltby, make it look smooth and easy. That’s pretty much always the case in “Breathe,” even though the entire show was filmed, at the 92nd Street Y in New York, without scenery or props, and with just a piano accompaniment. The orchestrations were seamlessly backfilled later — or “reverse engineered,” as Picoult told The New York Times.

The reverse engineering of the second chapter, “Aches,” is not so successful; its plot, about a quarantining gay couple who completely mistake each other’s intentions, never rings true. If Theo (Max Clayton) and Max (Matt Doyle) at least seem like a couple, that may be because Clayton and Doyle really are one; they bring internal authenticity to a story motivated by unlikely externalities.

Perhaps the O. Henry-ish twists, including the hoary reading of a crumpled letter, would have worked better if given more room to play out, but all five chapters wind up cannibalizing one another for time. As it is, the plot reversals — Max is expecting a marriage proposal but Theo is planning to break up instead — barely register before another reversal and, soon enough, another chapter come along. There’s little the director, Joe Barros, can do to vary the tone or complicate the pair’s few signboarded traits: Max, hyper-romantic and dim; Theo, wolfish and opportunistic.

I’m all for opportunism, and even cannibalism, in a musical, but “Breathe,” most of which was scripted by Picoult and McDonald, seems unwilling to make anyone a villain. Instead of faults, its characters have failings: problems that, unlike Covid itself, are quickly correctable. Perhaps that’s why most of the chapters are tied so weakly to their title symptoms — or, for that matter, to the pandemic, which is vaguely blamed in “Aches” for forcing too much intimacy on a pair that wasn’t ready for it.

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Newsrust - US Top News: ‘Breathe’ Review: A Pandemic Musical That Strains to Surprise
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