For the original songs “by” this never-named, fictionalized rock group — all composed by Will Butler of Arcade Fire — are actually good, not merely artificially whipped-up pastiche. And they’re performed with exquisite craftsmanship by actors playing the combative members of the band: Will Brill, Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka, Sarah Pidgeon and Chris Stack. Pidgeon, as the insecure, high-strung lead singer in a long relationship with Pecinka’s martinet of a band leader, has a sultry voice made for smoky ballads. She’s a star in the making.
Rock is the lingua franca of theater aimed at nostalgic boomers, but “Stereophonic” is neither nostalgia nor for boomers only. Under Daniel Aukin’s exceptionally intelligent direction, the superb actors occupy this hyper-realistic play as if they were refugees from classic drama. Over three riveting hours, we are invited into the group’s bubble, a confined space that makes ample room for musicians’ egos, musicians’ demons and, yeah, sometimes even music.
Their world is so insular — so public facing and yet so cut off from external events — that the surtitles on David Zinn’s handsome studio set, delineating time (1976) and place (Sausalito, Calif.) feel oddly too specific. Didn’t these blowups, the self-destructive acts, the drug-taking, the romantic betrayals, occur just yesterday? At one point, Pidgeon’s Diana, learning of the band’s top-of-the-chart triumphs, muses about their fame. No, not just famous — really, really famous. It’s as if she is marveling at something momentous that has taken place somewhere else: maybe an Apollo space mission, or the ending of a war.
Those things happened in the ’70s. But in “Stereophonic,” they’re far away, unaccounted for. Even time seems to be suspended. The record label has informed the group that the deadline for the new album has been extended and that they can work seemingly indefinitely — which is both a good and a bad thing, seeing as how perfectionist Peter, played by Pecinka with potent, neurotic zeal, wants to rerecord everything, and then rerecord it. (If anything might peg this as a period piece, Peter’s unchecked bullying of women is a qualifying characteristic.)
Adjmi lays out a “Downton Abbey” hierarchy in the studio, with the band as the figurative gentry and the recording engineers, ambitious Grover (Eli Gelb) and hapless Charlie (Andrew R. Butler), as the browbeaten servants downstairs. Gelb and Butler are the play’s answers to Vladimir and Estragon, the bedraggled drifters forsaken by God in “Waiting for Godot.” Here, the waiting takes place at the console, as Grover and Charlie cajole, placate, coach, endure. The band barely notices Butler’s beautifully understated Charlie, but the power of Gelb’s magnetic Grover sneaks up on them, and on us — a servant with a spine, and a gift.
The seven actors, playing a mixture of Brits and Americans, are so attuned to the richness of Adjmi’s script that each becomes an indispensable chapter of the story. Canfield gives Holly, the keyboardist in love with Brill’s troubled bass player, Reg, rewardingly sharp elbows; Brill, addicted first to drugs and alcohol, then to sobriety, is a model of talent teetering on the edge of dissolution; and the excellent Stack makes of drummer Simon a man who can hold the beat but not his temper.
The play’s unnamed eighth character is Creative Tension, making entrances almost as regularly as the band members file in and out of the recording studio. An audience gets a compelling portrait of artistic collaborators with mismatched temperaments: The band members storm off and melt down in explosive huffs so often that you wonder how they get any work done at all.
Yet they do. And when they do, and they feel and hear that the work is good, we, too, sense the rhapsodic, celebratory energy that is released. For the moment, in some miraculous way, it’s all worth it. And that goes double — maybe even triple — for us in the audience, watching it all unfold, unforgettably.
Stereophonic, by David Adjmi, songs by Will Butler. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Set, David Zinn; costumes, Enver Chakartash; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; sound, Ryan Rumery; music direction, Justin Craig. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Through Dec. 17 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York. playwrightshorizons.org.