Despite its dicey contemporary setting, David Steen’s Avenue A seems a throwback to 1950s psychodrama. The formula (call it Freudian boilerplate) centers on a tough guy with a sorrowful heart trying against the odds to realize his simple dreams. It’s the kind of middlebrow theater that lives or dies on the emotional
grit of its actors, who must somehow find a way to make compelling the genre’s typically
reductive psychology and mechanistic plots— both of which feed off an unending stream of shameful secrets.
Steen demonstrates a knack for this kind of outdated material. His play— presented by the 29th Street Rep, the same theater that launched last year’s low-rent sleeper Killer Joe— takes place in the shabby Lower East Side apartment of two brothers. Joey (Thomas Wehrle), a mentally shaky ex-con with a penchant for gardening he picked up in the big house, and Chickie (Patrick Burchill), a gimp-legged Yankee fan who’s scraping together the money for technical school, are trying to transform themselves into responsible adults, despite the Gothic horror of their childhoods. Rosa (Moira MacDonald), Joey’s waiflike girlfriend, regularly drops by with groceries and ends up spending the night to avoid her physically abusive father. She cooks and cleans and comforts in the blind hope of achieving some sort of domestic stability.
As much as Joey desperately wants to create a nurturing home environment complete with floral beds, his insane routine of shouting and spitting into an empty hall closet (not to mention the way he holds his head like a ticking time bomb) suggests something’s deeply out of whack. The prospect of a normal life seems even more of a long shot when his former cellmate Larry (David Mogentale) arrives on the scene. Recently released, this tough guy with bulging muscles wears his homoerotic attachment to Joey on his sleeve. Not only does he resent Rosa’s presence, he tries to involve Chickie in one of his upcoming heists once he sees that Joey’s serious about going (in every sense of the word) straight.
While Steen does an effective job of establishing this world, his unraveling of the situation lacks finesse. Plot dynamics take precedence over character truth— nowhere more so than when we learn the surprisingly good intentions behind Larry’s appearance at his buddy’s doorstep. This denouement hinges on a series of abrupt revelations concerning everything from Joey’s guilt about Chickie’s bum foot to the way their father murdered their mother. Jail, it turns out, is the best home Joey ever had— and consequently the only one he’s truly capable of. But it’s hard to appreciate the emotional subtext of Larry arranging their return to the slammer when it’s a resolution that seems so patently contrived.
In keeping with set designer Philipp Bartsch’s appropriately ratty living room decor, director Jim Holmes’s cast takes a grimy naturalistic approach to their roles. MacDonald’s frail, raccoon-eyed Rosa and Burchill’s wiry street-kid Chickie seem less acted than observed through a tenement window. Wehrle and Mogentale have more overtly theatrical demands placed on them. Though they succeed in bringing the well-intentioned borderline psychotic and violently insecure bully to life, neither performer is up to the task of rescuing the story from its ultimate falseness.
While Steen conceives a new play in old-fashioned ways, playwright and director David Karl Lee takes an old play and makes it bizarrely new. His rock musical Nirvanov combines Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov and the tragedy of Nirvana legend Kurt Cobain, who like Ivanov committed suicide after a long and much misunderstood depression. Though the cabaret-style piece should appeal more to Cobain’s fans than Chekhov’s, Lee’s fearless theatricality and inventiveness turn this into a brilliantly entertaining, if not always cohesive, pastiche.
Though not considered on par with his later masterpieces, Ivanov is the play in which Chekhov began to refine his whole approach
to character. The crux of the drama concerns an attractive middle-aged man who, having fallen out of love with his wife, cannot endure the way his situation is reduced to the most clichéd terms. To his ailing wife’s doctor, he
is a scoundrel; to his young lover, he is in need of salvation. Nearly everyone else considers him a gold-digger. Unable to make sense of his own inner torment and disgusted by the facile interpretations placed on him, he eventually blows his brains out— an action that crystallizes in a melodramatic flourish the playwright’s understanding of how stereotypes murderously constrict our unwieldy lives.
While there are similarities between Ivanov and Cobain, the stories jibe only superficially. The latter ultimately has more to do with the cult of modern-day celebrity, a moral tale rather than a metaphysical one. Nirvanov is really just a mix-and-match of narratives, thrown together more by theatrical instinct than careful thought. Fortunately, Lee and his actors have terrific instincts.
In a deftly modulated performance, Mark H. Dold portrays the rock superstar with a heaving Russian soul. Wearing one of his wife’s dresses underneath his usual grunge uniform, he flails about in a black mood, futilely trying to convey the absolute misery of success. As he explains to his imaginary friend and fellow Seattle soul mate Frances Farmer (a coolly rebellious Theresa Lee), not only has he stopped writing songs, he’s also unable to return the love of his wife, never mind the adoration of his spoiled mistress Sasha (played with insouciant charm by Amanda Allan).
As he demonstrated in his production of Mac Wellman’s The Lesser Magoo, Lee has
an unusually exuberant spatial imagination. He’s comfortable not only working with layered textual material (one character channels moments from both Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters), but in choreographing disparate theatrical worlds. He also possesses a talent for writing witty lyrics (particularly amusing are the rowdy chorus numbers). Though his music-hall saga may not travel anywhere too deep, it never lacks flamboyant style or rock’n’roll verve.
The total commitment of the young cast
is truly marvelous to behold. Of special comic note is Ruth Moore as the society matron determined to steer her daughter towards Nirvanov’s millions and C.S. Lee as her equally greedy recording-mogul husband. It’s all such good fun, it seems a pity to quibble about the candlelit Cobain vigil ending. Mawkish, sure, but when you’re in such confident directorial hands, it’s easy to overlook a few dramaturgical flaws.