An immediate wistfulness permeates the first exchange in Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy’s wondrous new musical, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island. Gingin, an adorable, notably unwed Gotham grad student (Mollie Weaver) receives a random call a from long-tressed (but body-hair-inhibited) Kayrolian stevedore, Samson (Mulcahy). But even before their biographical details fall into place,the drolly conversational opening holds an inexplicable ache. When Samson (visible behind a scrim but thousands of miles away) asks how he sounds on his new phone, his perfect-stranger interlocutor answers along a stately, descending melody: “You sound pretty clear/Yeah, you sound pretty clear.”
Their words aren’t just “the pleasantries surrounding a wrong number,” as someone later puts it, but carry a hopeful erotic charge, the absurd longings of anonymity. And the far-flung tale that writer-director-designer Katchor and composer-actor Mulcahy spin in the next two hours, for all its delightful flights of fancy, makes good on this emotional connection. Appropriately, Gingin’s would-be swain is Immanuel Lubang (Ryan Mercy), connoisseur of a secret genre of poetry—the instruction manuals of outdated home appliances, literature he dubs the “anonymous productions of the mid 20th century.” (The Botulax can opener, the Normelton toaster oven, the Gumsol electric toothbrush: Katchor has great fun crafting the cryptic syllables of faded commerce.) Lubang, whose fresh-faced enthusiasm recalls that of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer, isn’t alone in his love of this fugitive form of prose poetry; aficionados meet regularly to give readings from, say, the translated instructions to a Japanese blender. Such abstractions intimate a “world in which man lives with his machines in peace.”
Emotional projection—onto faceless callers, onto useless words—is thus one of the show’s dearest themes, illuminated with humor and tenderness. And like a shifting landscape of desire and whimsy, the leisurely drawings of cartoonist Katchor are projected onto a triptych of screens, images that respond antically to create a Manhattan of penthouse suites and Macedonian coffee shops and a Kayrolian tropical limbo of mutated crocodiles, smokestacks, and lonely brothels.
The marquee-meriting “slugs” denote not some viscid gastropod, but the small lead ingots placed inside modern-day devices to give them “the impression of heft and worth” they lack due to miniaturized advanced technology. The lead is mined by third-world robots, and transferred from dock to rail by men on Kayrol Island, who are paid in date nut leaves. Another projection: Western journalists fill the news with stories of their tragedy, but the perception isn’t shared by the workers, who are rendered by Katchor in beach-casual and apparently only have to walk 20 feet, one small slug on each shoulder.
Katchor’s comic-strip art translates into three dimensions. The clarity of plot points and jokes, of fanciful urban microhistory and cogent reductio ad absurdums, is amazing for such a densely written work. Lubang makes Gingin’s acquaintance after getting hit by a glob of ice cream while walking on the sidewalk below her family’s penthouse balcony; Gingin’s apologetic, well-to-do electrolysist stepfather Dr. Rushower (Tom Buckland) invites him up. When Gingin, mortified by news reports of the slug bearers’ poverty, later refuses contact with any appliances, Dr. Rush-ower underwrites a mission to get his daugh- ter out of her slump—and perhaps into the arms of a mate—by sending her and Lubang to Kayrol to spread the joys of “consumer fiction.” Slug Bearers doesn’t miss a beat as it takes on political commentary that’s as deft as it is nonjudgmental, silly as it is serious.
The supple four-piece band moves easily from gonzo calypso to lounge jazz, and keeps the soundscape uncluttered even when cutting loose. Lubang introduces him and his appetite for instructions with a discursive, propulsive song that’s like Don McLean’s “American Pie” but with the phrase “see figure seven” as a dramatic high point, and his attempt to convert the Kayrol workers has the rumbling energy of a church revival. He and Weaver are sweetly appealing leads, Buckland is sportingly avuncular, and Michael Wiener and Joshua Bishoff provide memorable comic turns in the supporting roles.
As much as the milieu is pure Katchor (brilliantly developed from a “Julius Knipl” story in Metropolis magazine, and later collected in his book The Beauty Supply District), the more surprising achievement may be Mulcahy’s—not just his lively and varied score, but also his multiple stage roles. Who could have anticipated such an extroverted and enjoyable second career? Miracle Legion, Mulcahy’s old band, had a late-’80s heyday, sounding like a more plangent R.E.M.; his more recent solo albums are at once more confessional and hermetic. But here he proves an avid showman, playing with chameleon relish a cynical industrialist and Gingin’s overweening shrink, who semi-sambas as he unreels his diagnosis. And in Mulcahy’s main role as Samson, he’s a sunnier version of his contemplative recording persona. Explaining the lure of the persuasive radio jingle that brought him to work from a neighboring island, he asks, “How could anyone with ears resist?” As they say in the movies, this one had me at hello.