Review: “I’d love to love but need to write”: A New Brain at NY City Center

Adriana Nocco

In “An Invitation To Sleep In My Arms,” one of many songs written by William Finn for his musical entitled A New Brain, Roger Delli-Bovi, Gordon Schwinn’s boyfriend, implores Schwinn to spend the last hospital bed-ridden night before his craniotomy by Roger’s side instead of with his pen and paper (attempting to write a song for his stubborn boss). Schwinn wishes to say yes to Roger and comply, but feels compelled to write because he fears that he will lose his mental faculties after the operation and that this might be the one chance he has left to extract at least one song that is truly great from his mind. So, Schwinn replies, “I’d love to love but need to write.”

This seemingly simple phrase speaks to the journey that changes Gordon Schwinn during the course of A New Brain quite well. Schwinn sings it during “An Invitation To Sleep In My Arms,” which takes place during Act 1 (before his operation), but by the end of the musical (after his operation, which proves successful), Schwinn has learned to cherish his loved ones more than ever before. He realizes that his appreciation for them and for life are what will aid him in his slow recovery, and that once his outlook on life is grounded in what truly matters, he will be able to write again. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s A New Brain is largely an autobiographical tale (and cathartic to tell, I’m sure), based on a traumatic experience that Finn underwent. Gordon Schwinn, its central character (William Finn’s character “alter ego”), is an aspiring songwriter who, at the beginning of the musical, wishes to make a difference and be remembered through his writing more than anything.

However, he feels stuck. He is struggling to achieve his “big break” by writing a song for children’s television producer and personality Mr. Bungee (clearly ironically named as such due to the fact that he dresses as a frog while on the air), and is definitely frustrated about his less-than-idyllic situation. Schwinn is working at the piano with his hung-up (yet resigned, for Schwinn is gay) ex-girlfriend turned best friend, Rhoda, when all of a sudden he collapses and hits his head on the floor. An ambulance whisks Schwinn away to the hospital, where he is told that he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain; essentially, he must undergo an operation or risk loss of his mental functionality and possible death. During his time in the hospital, Mimi (his mother), Roger, and Rhoda try their best to support him while simultaneously coping with their own fears and anxieties concerning his situation and its possibly grim outcome; this proves itself to be especially difficult for them the night before his operation occurs. A New Brain is a story of an experience that knocked Schwinn (Finn) down, both literally and figuratively, but more importantly, it is about how he and his loved ones came together to go about picking up the pieces.

At times, the show felt a little bit rushed, perhaps too fast-paced for my taste; I found myself wishing that some of A New Brain’s more crucial moments had more time to settle. However, that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that, with the help of the show’s creative team, William Finn’s emotional truth certainly shone through the story, even during its “over-the-top” moments. For example, in “Brain Dead,” which takes place while Schwinn is in a comatose state after his operation, imaginary, gauze-clad zombies dance around with Schwinn inside his mind. At one point, the song stops short, one zombie drops to the floor (now an inanimate corpse), and two others drag it offstage before the song resumes. Even though this moment was dark and morbid in a way (touching upon the fact that Schwinn could quite possibly die), it made me laugh, and I realized that it exemplified what A New Brain’s intention was all along. The best way to address the grief that we feel during dire circumstances is through laughter, and for me, “Brain Dead” felt like a testament to this universal method that humans use to address and cope with grief. 

On that note, I especially loved the fact that A New Brain purposely blurs the lines between “actual” reality and Schwinn’s reality. I believe that “reality” is a subjective term, and due to the fact that perception is influenced by our individualized observations, thoughts, and feelings, our perception of what is real becomes increasingly and especially unclear during our most emotionally charged and our most trying times. For instance, throughout Schwinn’s time in the hospital, Mr. Bungee (played by Dan Fogler, previously known for his Tony-winning performance as William Barfée in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) appears to him dressed in green attire from head to toe, complete with an ironic frog hat and gloves (and the stage lighting changes to green accordingly during his entrances). Bungee taunts him, symbolizing Schwinn’s struggle to accept the fact that his condition might terminate his ability to write (along with his mental faculties) before he can write something significant. Schwinn is the only person who interacts with Bungee, which leads audiences to believe that this version of Bungee is a hallucination, but for Schwinn, he is a very real being, and Schwinn interacts with him throughout his time in the hospital. This Bungee also leads a song entitled “Don’t Give In” towards the end of the show, and in the process leads Schwinn to come out of his coma and back towards his consciousness and loved ones (signifying Schwinn’s newfound ability to let go of his apprehension concerning his writing and recognize that his writing should be inspired by appreciation for love and life). 

I also love the fact that the lens through which each additional character in A New Brain is presented to audiences is how each one copes with Schwinn’s illness or how it affects their life in some way. For instance, a number sung by Mimi, entitled “Throw It Out,” demonstrates how Schwinn’s angst and seemingly perpetual thirst for knowledge and creative fulfillment has led his own worried mother, in her heightened emotional state, to believe that books are the reason why he is having health issues in the first place. She is deeply protective of her son, but feels restless because she wants something to blame and something to do to help him (even though, as we all know, diseases like Schwinn’s are unpredictable and there is often nothing that anyone can do to stop them from running their course). Ultimately, the situation is simply not within her control, and this frustrates her beyond belief. So, during “Throw It Out,” she throws away all of the books that Schwinn keeps at home, for in these circumstances which cause her to feel helpless, this is all she can do to purge herself of her frustration and feel as if she is doing something that will affect the outcome of her son’s situation. Then, towards the end of the show, a homeless lady named Lisa finds the books on the street and ironically tries to sell them to Schwinn and Roger (after Schwinn has regained consciousness). Schwinn realizes that they are his books immediately and at first desperately attempts to get them back from her for free. But, with Roger’s help, Schwinn accepts the fact that they are “just books” and that, in the grand scheme of things, he can survive without them; he still has love in his life and, thankfully, a “new brain” that he will be able to use to continue his quest for knowledge and creative fulfillment for a very long time.

This particular production of A New Brain possessed an all-star creative team, and definitely had a talented, proficient cast with indubitable chops. For me, standouts within A New Brain’s supporting cast were the always funny, anxious yet unforced Ana Gasteyer as Mimi, Rema Webb, who has a showstopping voice that made me leap to my feet, as the homeless lady, and the hilarious, quirky scene-stealer and fantastic singer by the name of Josh Lamon as the “nice nurse.” However, A New Brain would not have been able to function without a strong core, and I felt that Jonathan Groff as Schwinn was that core. He was uneasy and agitated while somehow also sincere and sweet, and his brilliant yet unassuming acting and vocals lent a sensitivity to Schwinn that made me want to root for him. 

I certainly hope that A New Brain returns to the New York stage again in the future, for an extended run this time. In the city that never sleeps, we definitely need a show that grounds people, encouraging them to stop for a minute, take stock of what is truly important in life, and “love to love.”