Marcel Proust, portrayed by actor Brent Carver, stands in profile on the jewel-box-size stage with a look of suffering, yet wonder, in his eyes. A shy man who can barely look at the audience, he has come to tell a story about his youth, when he loved a saucy girl named Albertine.
So begins "My Life With Albertine," the première of a musical currently in previews at Playwrights Horizon on W. 42nd Street. Director Richard Nelson has adapted the work from the French author's multivolume novel, "Remembrance of Things Past," with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon.
While raiding literature for the stage is not new, taking on Proust's haunting and detailed achievement of nearly 3,000 pages might be considered an act of show-biz hubris.
Nelson, whose adaptation of James Joyce's "The Dead" was a hit several seasons ago, expressed no qualms about the complexities of Proust. "The surprise on reading Proust is finding out how theatrical it is," he said in an interview during a day off from rehearsals. "It seems like a good, rich tale."
An American living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., Nelson began writing for the theater in high school, going on to win the annual playwriting contest at Hamilton College. His first professional play was mounted in 1975, when he was 25. "I've done a play each year since then. I'm one of a handful who makes a living as a playwright," he says.
The Albertine segments thread through several of the Proust volumes to follow the love affair between the narrator and the girl he first encounters on the beach at Balbec. "It's the story of a young man coming of age. He's 17 or 18 years old. We play it over a year and a half. It's about the confusion of love, of late adolescence. I can't think of anything more universal," Nelson says.
The character of Marcel is taken by two actors: the older man (Carver) who narrates the tale, both watching and interacting with his younger self, played by Chad Kimball (who last year played a cow - with star-making effect - in "Into the Woods").
The device of the dual characterization, of one man at different stages of life, also supports another central theme: the sifting through of past episodes, in search of the truth.
A major change for the theater is the transformation of Marcel from a writer into a composer presenting his memories as a show-within-a-show. Marcel invites the audience to watch a piece he has written about his life with Albertine, staged behind a small proscenium arch set up in his wood-paneled living room in Paris, circa 1917.
The actors sit in armchairs against the walls as they wait for their cues. The opening songs are simple: "Balbec By The Sea," which introduces the beach setting, followed by a lullaby from Marcel's grandmother, then a children's rhyme for Albertine and her friends, and a tango.
The score deepens as Marcel's emotions darken with jealousy and fears of losing Albertine. At the end, Carver, as Proust, says, "I have often wondered, had I not gone that summer to Balbec, had I not seen that silhouette against the sea, had I never known my Albertine, would I have written, could I have written - anything?"