The setting is Dublin, Ireland. Unleash the rambunctious troupe. Shove in love somewhere. Sprinkle those pithy quips. Presented at the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco is “Once,” based on the 2007 film of the same name, an incohesive production managing to capture nothing but an audience’s blurred attention.
A Czech immigrant (Olivia Clari Nice) and a local busker (Corbin Mayer) stumble into each other’s lives but continually fumble in convincing the audience of their ostensibly fond connection. A cornerstone scene containing a rendition of a ballad called “Falling Slowly” falls flat by trying to tie archetypal heartstrings together that sound obtrusively out of tune. Indeed, the sterile framework behind the relationship boils down to an overly eccentric girl trying to mesh with a wearisome guy, which isn’t actually all that charming or imaginative of a predicament. Instead of a mutual connection, all that’s heard is a resounding cacophony of displaced synergy.
This insipidly conventional simplification of romance consequently leaves a dilemma in which the plot and music puppeteer the main characters rather than opening options for them to investigate the underlying obstacles of each other’s worlds. More specifically, the choice of primarily identifying them as “Girl” and “Guy” would be thought to highlight their ethnic narratives, yet the script fails to fully investigate the immigrant experience in the context of their relationship. This hinders the performers’ creative potential to explore their characters’ love and ultimately causes missed opportunities for the audience to connect with the two or even consider them likable. In essence, the relationship is muddled and ambiguous in a manner that doesn’t provoke audiences toward extensive thought.
In another vein, the script desperately cries for a more nuanced and invigorating interplay in light of a tedious storyline. “Don’t be sad, you must sing,” Girl implores Guy in a placating tone. Countless lines like this one try to hit some striking note of gravity but instead come off as banal and without meaningful depth.
Graciously, a diamond in the rough appears in one moment when Guy is stuck deliberating between leaving Girl and pursuing her. With an introspective sigh, he reflects to himself: “How’s the heart? It’s traveling.” This stands out as a keen way to convey a sense of melancholy and longing regarding Guy’s complicated, pivotal decision.
The show does, however, hold a couple sweet attributes in spite of its core issues. Girl’s friend Billy (Rob Ready) owns a music shop and every scene he’s in, memorably pouncing and karate-chopping around the stage while spitting out amusingly blunt comments. In a delightful performance that’s intended to function as a foil character to Guy, Ready ends up merely accentuating the lead character’s blandness. Frankly, it’s a testament to the effect background characters tend to have throughout: They outshine the lifeless love story with their ridiculous subplots.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the ensemble is the assigning of each member to an instrument, ranging from accordion to cello, to elegantly integrate the show’s musical numbers within the play’s reality as well as allow for smooth transitions during interludes. This method would work if it weren’t for the off-kilter belting during multiple songs such as Guy’s opening “Leave,” which elicited, rather than a sentimental quality, a somewhat unsettling impression. However, vocal mishaps shouldn’t be entirely credited to the actors and actresses in light of the poor audio engineering blurring words into gibberish.
“Once” is deceptive, luring audiences with an intimate stage, minimalistic set designs, a mini-concert before starting and vivacious footwork that quakes through the ground. But as pleasurable as these elements may be, they simply propel audiences into a fruitless production that inevitably ends with them crying out like Guy in his Irish accent, “Jaysus!”