In the opening scene of Breath, Boom, a teenage girl is brutally beaten by a gang of her closest friends. Very near the play’s end, the gang leader, who has ordered but not participated in the beating, is brutally beaten herself, while in jail, by a gang of younger girls, led by the daughter of the girl on whom the first beating was inflicted. This is not the motive for the second beating; the connection is simply Kia Corthron’s way of telling us how, in the inner city and its jailward extensions, what goes around comes around. There, nasty tricks are Destiny’s stock-in-trade, and a young woman of 28 has no right to expect any mercy from a girl of 14, even while telling her truthfully, “I was at your christening.” It’s a world where, given life-expectancy rates, surviving to age 28 is itself a mercy.
Not that the life of Prix (pronounced the quasi-French way, pree), the gang leader who is Corthron’s central figure, offers much mercy at any age. We get to watch her, as a teenager, help her mother escape from the latter’s abusive boyfriend and then meet the boyfriend, when he starts in on her, with a drawn knife and the terse exclamation “I ain’t five no more.” With scenes like this in the outside world, it’s no wonder the play makes prison seem an almost idyllic retreat from Prix’s daily life—though, as usual with Corthron, that life is densely textured. Other, more recognizable kinds of normality—work, learning, marriage, having and mothering children—are always visible options, even if the oppression of inner-city life is always hovering to crush them. One of Breath, Boom‘s most cutting stratagems is the repeated use of a speech Prix composes for a prisoner-rehab training session, in which she expresses gratitude to her “sistas” for their support. We never witness the actual delivery of this speech, only its subsequent burlesquing for various types of comic effect, the nastiest coming in the scene where Prix is beaten up.
Corthron isn’t attacking the notion of feminist solidarity, simply noting that it, like every other good impulse, has limited chances of survival where needs are harshest. Far more of a clinician than a pessimist, she gives her heroine a wonderfully goofy, inexplicable saving grace: a love of fireworks. While living the girl-gangsta life in and out of jail, Prix becomes an expert in the art of causing explosions for aesthetic rather than destructive purposes. She eventually fulfills her dream of putting on a fireworks show of her own, but here, too, Corthron has arranged to let Destiny add a bitter edge to her joy. At the end, Prix’s story feels complete but unfinished: the story of a girl who, things being what they are, has not become the person she might have been, and whose chance of being anything else grows increasingly limited. Full of love, humor, and self-reliance, the last scene is nonetheless harrowingly bleak.
As in previous plays, Corthron hasn’t chosen the easy way to tell her story. Though simple in focus, the scenes are dense with subordinate characters—none gratuitous—and subsidiary topics. Her language, one of the most remarkably individual stage dictions of our time, is becoming steadily more supple in its terse richness: a knotted gutter poetry, its phrases running together as if balled up in anger, so many verbal clenched fists. For middle-class white audiences, myself included, she offers a very tough listen, but one that pays off: To go over one of her scripts after seeing the play is to find every word in its truthful place. Marion McClinton’s production, using the narrow space of Playwrights Horizons’ upstairs Studio ingeniously, wisely doesn’t linger over them, instead making sure these single weights carry a cumulative tragic force. My only objection is that he has allowed one or two of his cast to play the comic moments with a shrieking, Fox-sitcom excess that’s way too loud for the tiny room. But a little shrieking might be construed as welcome relief from Yvette Ganier’s stunning, implacable performance as Prix. Petite, soft-spoken, her delicate features composed in masklike impassivity, Ganier is the tightly wound fuse that ignites this dramatic Roman candle. While barely changing expression, she conveys to the audience the exact amount of gunpowder packed inside the character, ready to blow up the world or illuminate the night sky. This passion, and this economy of means, in an artist so young could alleviate almost any bleakness.
The hopeful signs with which tick . . . tick . . . BOOM! is bursting, in contrast, are almost its most painful aspect. How can you relish a fresh, youthful musical about the pain of turning 30, by an artist who you know didn’t live to be 40? The tears begin at the beginning, but they don’t stop when you come to the end. To make matters worse, Raul Esparza, who plays the lead with an easy, hapless charm, doesn’t particularly resemble Jonathan Larson but has Larson’s exact eager-yet-weary look in his eyes.
The hero of tick . . . tick . . . BOOM! is a songwriter with Broadway ambitions and a passion for rock, an idiom that he knows the Big Street only speaks with a bubblegum Brit accent. Turning 30, he wonders if he should give it up like his best friend and settle for market research; his dancer girlfriend wants him to settle down with her in some small town. In addition, his agent has become increasingly unreachable, the upcoming workshop of his new show seems to be a mess, and he imagines that he hears a persistent slow ticking, culminating in explosions that come ever closer. Anyone whose lips just formed the words “aortic aneurysm,” please leave the room. This is not about medical hindsight.
Except that, of course, it is. tick . . . tick . . . BOOM! is delightful, and funny, and flawed, full of the shortcomings of youth and the overinsistence of young artists who haven’t yet begun to search out subjects beyond themselves. It has a brash vivacity and an artlessness that are in some ways more appealing than the complex struggles with plot and character that mark Rent. But Rent itself, really, was only a first strong step in a career that ceased to happen even before the show had been publicly performed. In this respect, tick . . . tick . . . BOOM!, being much more openly autobiographical, is that much more painful.
Larson was bold—brazen, even—in building songs out of his personal crises. Rock troubadours do it, but it isn’t common in the musical theater. He liked taking chances; witness the way he pulled apart the dramaturgic structure of La Boheme precisely because it was famous for working so well. tick . . . tick . . . BOOM! has a song about a green dress, and the suspicion crossed my mind that he may have written it just because somebody told him that it’s considered unlucky to wear green onstage. One of the show’s most endearing numbers is a hymn to the pleasure of bingeing on sweets when under stress, its lyrics cunningly phrased to make it marketable as a love song outside the score.
For all tick . . . tick . . . BOOM!‘s unwitting prefigurations of Larson’s unhappy fate, it has an irrepressible optimism, taking its hero’s most painful confrontations as subjects for wry comedy, not for moans. At the end, when Esparza’s Jonathan, surrounded by an unseen crowd of partying friends, sits at the keyboard to play “Happy Birthday” to himself, it’s history, not the show, that makes us cry. The best compliment one can pay to Scott Schwarz, who directed, and to the three-member cast, in which Amy Spanger and Jerry Dixon give Esparza strong, resourceful support, is that the whole thing is carried on as blithely as if the author were here to see it. Since we’ll never see his post-Rent musicals, we’d best share their delight in this one.
Speaking of shared delight, I plan to write at length next week about Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step; the limited space I have left here is only enough to recommend that you catch its extremely limited run. If for some arcane reason you were planning to see Byrd’s Boy, at Primary Stages, you can use the evening you might have wasted on that earnest, static, and entirely skippable event. I don’t blame the actors, Myra Lucretia Taylor and David McCallum, who do their skillful best. But why they should bother—why anyone should have bothered to write, direct, or produce this pointless lump of sententiousness and sentimentality—is a puzzle even harder to explain than Destiny.