“Sexy” and “immersive” are words that have been hooking up in Boston theater lately.
From “The Donkey Show” and other Oberon extravaganzas to Company One’s presentation of “Green Eyes” in a downtown hotel room in 2012, local companies have presented some of their most sensual work outside the proscenium, seeking a more intimate relationship with the audience.
In that vein is the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston production of “Hello Again,” Michael John LaChiusa’s musical about sex and connection. The show, at the Boston Center for the Arts through March 29, is in a modified cabaret setting. The director, Michael Bello, promises “a wild and exciting ride.”
The Bridge Rep version might not be quite as in-your-face as a recent New York production, at which the New York Times critic noted that he had to bend his legs to avoid turning a sex scene into a simulated threesome. But “the audience will still absolutely be up close and personal,” Bello says.
There’s one scene between characters called The College Boy and The Nurse that “takes place on top of a table that has six chairs around [it] that audience members will be sitting at. So it’s pretty close,” says McCaela Donovan, Bridge Rep’s associate artistic director.
But Bello and Donovan also caution against giving too much emphasis to the intimate view of carnality. “That scene is actually quite humorous, so I think it’s actually a really wonderful thing that they’re that close to everyone,” Donovan says.
“I think it’s easy to pin [the play] as being all about sex because there happens to be sex in every scene,” Bello says. “But at the end of the day, it’s a show about humans who are just desperate to connect to one another, and I think that’s a sentiment and a life goal that everyone can relate to. We’ve all had moments in our life both positive and negative where we were just desperate to connect to another person.
“Michael John LaChiusa has given us 10 people who perhaps go about it the wrong away, or the right way depending on how you view the outcome of each scene,” the director says.
Sex aside, the show would be a bit challenging to summarize even if the characters were simply playing checkers. Arthur Schnitzler’s turn-of-the-last-century “La Ronde,” with its interlocking series of lovers’ meetings, is the main inspiration for “Hello Again.” The play has 10 scenes, and each of the 10 characters appears in two, with different partners. But here the “La Ronde” premise gets a couple of extra spins.
Each of the scenes takes place in a different decade of the 20th century, with the appropriate musical motif and other clues to the period, such as costumes. But the scenes do not appear in chronological order.
For instance, there’s a scene between The Young Thing and The Writer, which takes place in the 1970s. That’s followed by a scene between The Writer and The Actress, set in the 1920s. And that’s followed by a scene between The Actress and The Senator set in the 1990s.
If the chronology strikes you as a little funky, you’re right. The connection between The Writer in the 1920s and The Writer in the 1970s is left to the audience. Bello: “We’ve embraced the idea that while it’s a different person logistically because of the time period, there’s something about the character’s soul that remains from the first scene to the second, and what happens in the first scene affects what happens in the second.
“The audience can decide for themselves — is that the same person or is that two different people? — but you’re seeing a glimmer of the same woman’s soul from scene to scene,” Bello says.
Bello, an Emerson College grad, has recently served as assistant director specializing in several new musicals, including “Fly by Night” at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company and elsewhere, and “Candide” at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Donovan knew Bello and began talking to him more than a year ago about directing for Bridge Rep’s first season. He mentioned “Hello Again,” and she advocated for it as a great choice for the company.
The play dates to 1994; it appears the last Boston production was at SpeakEasy Stage in 1996. Why bring it back now? Aside from the buzzy subject, it’s the right-size show for Bridge Rep.
Donovan says she and producing artistic director Olivia D’Ambrosio, both among the troupe’s founders, “felt it was very important for us to do a musical within the first two years, because I think it’s important to establish that we do them. And we’re not going to have the space or resources to do a big, splashy musical, which is not really our style anyway.”
The cast includes Aubin Wise, Sarah Talbot, Jared Dixon, Lauren Eicher, Andrew Spatafora, and Sean Patrick Gibbons. All six actors remain in the room throughout, and a trio of musicians provides the era-specific sounds, everything from a World War II female harmony group to an ’80s hair-metal band.
Gibbons, for one, had no problem shedding his inhibitions. “He’s a very brave actor,” Donovan says. “He went into the first rehearsal, and Michael said, ‘What are you comfortable with?’ And he said, ‘I’m up for anything,’ ” Donovan recalls.
Says Gibbons: “I think it’s really important to find individuals who are ready to dive in on the first day of rehearsals and accept what the material gives you and go along for the ride with no hesitation.”
Bello says the sexual content of the play “may still rattle some sensibilities,” but it’s “just a fact and a part of the storytelling. It’s all going to be done with taste and dignity.”
“I don’t think it’s going to make the audience uncomfortable. It’s used to make the scenes feel real,” Donovan says. “I don’t think anyone is going to feel like their personal space has been invaded. They just get an opportunity to watch actors work in that kind of way.”