‘Stereophonic’ Review: Hitmakers Rendered in Sublime Detail

Peering behind the mystique of rock ’n’ roll has undeniable voyeuristic appeal. So there is an immediate thrill to seeing the mahogany-paneled control room and glassed-in sound booth that fill the Golden Theater stage, where “Stereophonic” opened on Friday. But David Adjmi’s astonishing new play, with songs by the former Arcade Fire member Will Butler, delivers far more than a dishy glimpse inside the recording studio during rock’s golden age.

A fly-on-the-wall study of how people both need and viciously destroy each other, “Stereophonic” is a fiery family drama, as electrifying as any since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Its real-time dissection of making music — a collaboration between flawed, gifted artists wrangled into unison — is ingeniously entertaining and an incisive meta commentary on the nature of art. The play is a staggering achievement, and already feels like a must-see American classic.

It’s 1976 in Sausalito, Calif., and a not-yet-famous band — at least not solely inspired by Fleetwood Mac — is laying down the record that will propel it to stardom and unravel the personal lives of its members (in much the same way that making “Rumours” did for Fleetwood Mac). The setting (a marvel by scenic designer David Zinn) is a pressure-cooker: The coffee machine is broken but there’s a gallon bag of cocaine, and tensions and affections — both creative and personal — are running hot.

Stillness and silence are as expressive as Adjmi’s meticulously orchestrated dialogue, body language sometimes even more so, our critic writes.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Directed with a conductor’s precision by Daniel Aukin, “Stereophonic” is an epic canvas rendered in hyper-intimate detail: whispered confidences and technical adjustments, slouches and stares, lots of lying around and rolling joints. Stillness and silence are as expressive as Adjmi’s meticulously orchestrated dialogue, body language sometimes even more so. It’s possible to read the band’s ascension to fame beyond the confines of the studio, as its previous album creeps up the Billboard charts, in the swiveling hips of its lead singer alone (and in the progression of prints and flares in Enver Chakartash’s divine costumes).

When the poetic and insecure Diana, played with stunning vulnerability by Sarah Pidgeon, sits down at the piano some 45 minutes into the three-hour show, the actor’s radiant voice delivers the first significant composition the audience hears: “Bright,” a folk-tinged rock ballad with sterling, ethereal vocals. Until then, notes trickle out in brief bursts. Often interrupted or doled out in riffs, the expressions of character and discord generated by Butler’s music are abstract — their fragmentation designed to make you want more. (Savor the early sessions when everyone can stand to be in the same room.)

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