A student of the poet Richard Howard once asked him, “Isn’t it painful when two men make love together?” The poem that Howard wrote in reply contains the rueful rejoinder, “When two men make love apart/That is the most painful.” I couldn’t help recalling the quote as I watched The Story of My Life, a sweet-natured but eerily blank new musical about two men who spend all their time onstage avoiding the fact that they love each other. Though full of charm, the show is virtually predicated on negativity. Practically everything that might give The Story of My Life any story or any life has been puzzlingly omitted. No wonder it closed so quickly.
The show, by Brian Hill (book) and Neil Bartram (songs), takes place in a metaphysical version of a small-town bookstore, in the brain of Thomas (Will Chase), a bestselling author struggling to write a eulogy for his childhood friend, Alvin (Malcolm Gets), mysteriously dead through either accident or suicide. Naturally, Alvin appears to prompt his memories, supplying from the shelves all the short stories Tom has drawn from their boyhood together, which become the show’s tidy, Sondheim-derived musical numbers. Alvin, whose mother died when he was six, has literally grown up in the family-owned bookstore and has run it since his father’s retirement. About Tom’s home life and parents we learn virtually nothing.
But then, we learn virtually nothing about most aspects of their lives and their relationship. Is this small town rural or industrial? Are these boys growing up in the late ’50s or the early ’90s? Imaginative Alvin fixates on his dead mother; Tom, after getting Tom Sawyer from Alvin for Christmas as a sixth-grader, fixates on becoming a popular author. While the short stories he draws from his recollections of Alvin make him a literary celebrity, his increasing fame, or maybe guilt, distances him increasingly from his friend. A story keeps recurring that he can’t finish, about their childhood Christmas Eve ritual of making snow angels in the yard and then watching It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. Alvin loves the movie because his mother did. What it means to Tom (who became Alvin’s friend when, at age six, he dressed up as Clarence the angel for Halloween) we never learn.
Because the show keeps reiterating the few details it does supply, its avoidances become increasingly eerie. Why doesn’t Alvin’s father notice that his adolescent son dresses up as his dead mother’s ghost every Halloween? Why doesn’t dreamy, speculative Alvin try his own hand at writing? Why don’t these two bookworms, over the years, ever stumble on any art that excites them more than Mark Twain and Frank Capra? The aesthetic shocks that rattle sensitive souls don’t usually stop in the sixth grade.
Sexuality never rattles these two, either. The show keeps an oddly austere distance from any erotic impulse: a coming-of-age story without glands. Apart from one perfunctory incident when, as they’re about to enter high school, Tom attempts to interest Alvin in a Playboy centerfold, neither displays any sexual interest, or any emotional excitement, except about their childhood friendship. Tom, who goes away to college while Alvin takes over the bookstore, does get engaged offstage, but this affair is treated so sketchily that his fiancée might as well be Avenue Q‘s fictive “girlfriend from Canada.”
Strangest of all may be the show’s idea of how literature gets made. That Tom should make a prestigious living writing only collections of short stories is implausible enough, though not impossible. But even Donald Barthelme or Raymond Carver couldn’t have built an entire career off his recollections of one boyhood friend. The assumption that authorship is merely the literal transcription of what somebody else says or does must be the wackiest notion of art ever advanced onstage, even on Broadway. All authors borrow, but if they don’t, as the expression goes, “make it their own,” the result of their borrowings isn’t likely to be interesting enough to be publishable. Tom waxes defensive over his use of Alvin as material, but we never learn enough about his own inner life to figure out if that’s what keeps them apart.
The difficulty of making such nebulous material one’s own unbalanced Richard Maltby Jr.’s crisp, bright, attractively spacious production: All of Chase’s authority and accomplishment as a performer couldn’t keep Thomas from seeming a craven, dishonest person, driven away from his only friend by some invisible force the authors resolutely decline to identify. This left the field open for Malcolm Gets’s moonstruck, woozily omniscient Alvin to stroll through and steal the show. Be assured that Gets, who has stolen better shows than this under tougher conditions, happily obliged.