In a dark theater, a lawnmower sits on an empty stage. Over it hangs the heavy, fragrant air of anticipation.
For good reason. Not only is "Suburb," the musical opening in the Alleyway Theatre, a world premiere - but the production amounts to a trial run for its writers, David Javerbaum and Robert S. Cohen. On March 1, 2001, "Suburb" opens in the York Theatre, off Broadway. (One of the producers is Roberta Plutzik Baldwin, former arts critic for the Buffalo Courier-Express.)
At the York Theatre, the show will run for five weeks - but if the reception is good, it could wind up with an open-ended off-Broadway run in another venue.
In short, Javerbaum and Cohen are at a crossroads. They could be on the verge of a big break - or they could face years more of hard work.
Much will depend on what the critics say next spring. Both writers can name off-Broadway shows they admired - but which failed after the New York Times gave them a thumbs down.
With luck, this won't happen to "Suburb," suggests Neal Radice, the Alleyway's artistic director. Radice remembers how "Suburb" stood out among the hundreds of scripts the theater receives in the mail annually.
Though a city dweller himself, he was struck by the show's humor and fairness.
"You expect the suburbs to take some ribbing, and they do," he says. "But it's not trite. It doesn't end up being banal in vilifying or glorifying the suburbs. Its message is that you can make a happiness for yourself no matter where you are."
Radice liked "Suburb" so much he responded immediately. Cohen and Javerbaum were impressed by his promptness. "Theater is a business for people who are wishy-washy," deadpans Cohen. "Neal stepped up to the plate."
"God In Concert'
Javerbaum, 29, has made a career as a jokester. At Harvard University, he co-wrote two Pudding musicals. He wrote for the satiric Web site "The Onion" and co-wrote its 1999 best seller "Our Dumb Century." Nominated for an Emmy Award for his work for "The Late Show With David Letterman," he now writes for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Cohen, who's 55 and graduated from Brown University, has a sense of humor to rival Javerbaum's. As a composer, he can claim such works as the musical "God In Concert: One Night Only" (the Almighty, needless to say, doesn't show up). He was composer in residence for the National Shakespeare Company, and his score for "Suburb" won the 2000 Richard Rodgers Award (Stephen Sondheim was a judge).
Even off stage in the empty Alleyway Theatre, the two men come off as a comedy team.
"There are no falling helicopters in our show," Javerbaum says, alluding to the star special effect of "Miss Saigon."
"Although if one is available we might be able to work it in," Cohen cracks.
"There might be a falling lawnmower," quips Javerbaum.
It's obvious the two share an easy rapport. Javerbaum and Cohen met in 1996, and began work on "Suburb" soon afterward.
"I had had the idea for a while of doing a show about the suburbs," Javerbaum says. Why the suburbs? "It's what I knew," he says. "I didn't have any personal issues to cathart," he adds, smiling as he coins the word.
Both men grew up in the suburbs. About a month ago, Cohen was thrilled to turn on the TV and behold a suburb in Russia, complete with Russians grilling on barbecues. He and Javerbaum designed the suburb in their show to be a sort of universal suburb.
The suburb in "Suburb" is called Suburb, and it adjoins such locales as Upper Outskirts, Bedroom Springs and Sprawlville.
In one song, the idyllically named streets of Suburb are read out on a long, ridiculous roster. They're all named after presidents and trees. (Grover Cleveland's name is listed twice, because he served two non-consecutive terms.)
A song about mowing
While reveling in such barbs, The writers took pains to avoid excessive, obvious mockery of the suburbs (that was done, Cohen jeers, in the movie "Clerks"). Instead, they focus affectionately on suburban rituals - barbecuing, mowing the lawn, commuting to work and walking to school. "Lawn mowing is part of the suburban experience," beams Javerbaum, "but we are the first to write a song about it."
The musical centers on a couple who, anticipating raising children, are forced to consider abandoning New York for Suburb. They're named Alison and Stuart, after Javerbaum's sister and her husband.
"Mow," the lawn-mowing song, is a pretty tune - almost like a nursery rhyme - sung by Stuart as he confronts his grassy domain. Even after a few days, the melody sticks in the memory. The lyrics do, too. (Who can forget, "To have a lawn/Is Avalon"?)
"Walking To School" is a catchy, innocent song about growing up in the suburbs. Cohen's musical philosophy is simple. "I think in the end," he says, "you have to have good tunes."
This is Javerbaum's and Cohen's first visit to Buffalo, and they're here for only a few days. Already, though, they're wowed by Curtain Up!, Buffalo's theater festival that occurs tonight.
"The whole Curtain Up! thing means that the shows are in synch, the town is abuzz with talk of theater," marvels Javerbaum. In no other city, he and Cohen say, do all the theaters pull together for such an event.
As they anticipate the curtain rising on "Suburb," and the subsequent casting of the crucial New York production, they seem as confident as two people in their position can be.
They're also a little tired. Though they're on the brink of an exciting development, they've been down an exhausting road.
"We've been with the show a long time," Javerbaum sighs, serious for once. "We'd like to see some reward for it. At the same time, we're sick of it.
"You have to constructively choose criticism," he explains. "Some have been ridiculous, and some have been valid. You have to recognize what comments resonate with what is inside you."
He and Cohen are done tinkering with "Suburb." They're ready to launch it and see what happens. For courage, they cast back to the time they had lunch with their hero, Sondheim.
"He was very sweet and very shy," Cohen says. "He said, "If you fail, fail with your own dreams.' "