She’s willing to wait 15 minutes or five years for that certain someone to walk into the cafe and change her life. He falls for her instantly — and literally, tray flying and table toppling.
Girl meets boy, over and over and over again in “Café Variations,” director Anne Bogart’s highly stylized, sometimes beguiling, and sometimes jarring musical theater piece that is making its world premiere at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The book is a pastiche of fragments from the plays of Charles L. Mee Jr., Bogart’s longtime collaborator. The subject, of course, is love, with all its trite sweet nothings and ferocious partings. Thirty actors inhabit the stage, coupling and uncoupling to a score of reinvented old standards from the Gershwin canon. There is a constant sense of longing in the air, but there is also an undercurrent of violence. One moment, a bouquet of flowers is a token of affection; the next moment, it’s a weapon.
Working from various Mee plays, Bogart interweaves a series of scenes, all of which take place in a cafe. This isn’t your tall-double-shot-no-whip-mocha-cash-and-carry cafe, but rather — on a set designed by Neil Patel, with lighting by Brian H. Scott — an elegant place with an orchestra behind a shimmery curtain and a drop ceiling that changes hue to reflect the mood. The ladies wear poufy frocks (costumes by Caitlin Ward) with starched petticoats and color-coordinated shoes. The men are in suits. The atmosphere evokes the high-society feel of the Gershwin era, yet the romance is punctuated with an aura of menace and alienation. For all the talk of love, the suitors sometimes barely look each other in the eyes.
It’s nothing if not ambitious. Bogart and actors from her New York-based SITI Company trained 22 Emerson College performing arts students, who share the stage with the pros. They’ve done their teaching job well, as the young actors are polished and slick. Each character is played by three people, highlighting the various aspects of the same person. This isn’t a piece with a linear plot, but rather a collection of overheard conversations. It’s small talk over coffee and raspberry tarts — with full-blown production numbers sprinkled in.
Two of the pairings, however, stand out. One is the bittersweet tale of Tilly (Deborah Wallace), the gal in the blue dress waiting for someone to watch over her, and the stiff-backed waiter (Tom Nelis) who volunteers for the part. The other is the saga of Andrew (Leon Ingulstrud) and Edith (Ellen Lauren), an unlikely couple who meet, quarrel, and seduce each other over a ferocious game of cards. (Enough said, but it’s jaw-dropping.)
What’s Gershwin got to do with it? Rachel Grimes’s new arrangements of tunes like “Do It Again” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” add an extra dose of bitterness. There is anger simmering in the delivery, even as the actors perform Barney O’Hanlon’s swinging choreography.
The juxtaposition of opposites can be jarring. When an actor utters some clichéd endearment like “Oh, happiness,’’ she spits out the words like too much bitter coffee. The feel of “Treat Me Rough” is like a kiss with a fist. Some of the dialogue aspires to the existential — “What do you want to take to the other side?” “Why can’t you find all people in one person?” — but it rings flat. Bogart has written that Mee is exploring “the notion that we become who we are through our relationships to other people and the environment,’’ and the environment they create is certainly sparkling, and the ensemble is tight. But as one character says, life is just a “constellation of moments,” and that is what the piece ultimately is — a “bunch of random moments,’’ some convincing, some not. Even so, the final tableau will break your heart.