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Theatre in Review: Search: Paul Clayton, The Man Who Loved Bob Dylan (Triad Theatre)

Peter Oyloe.

A forgotten piece of modern musical history is unearthed in Larry Mollin's new play. Today, Paul Clayton is probably known to only a handful of enthusiasts, but in the 1950s he was one of the leaders of the folk song pack. Thanks to his diligence and scholarship, he recorded no fewer than 12 albums in three years, although, unlike many of his contemporaries, the hit parade mostly eluded him. Still, he traveled in rarified circles, hobnobbing with the likes of Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, and Liam Clancy. His undoing, at least as Mollin would have it, came when the young Bob Dylan landed in Greenwich Village -- a speeding comet who knocked Clayton out of his orbit, setting him on a collision course with disaster. Clayton, who was homosexual, lavished attention (and money and drugs) on the young singer in the vain hope of sparking a romance. Dylan kept him around as long as it suited him, helping himself to Clayton's song "Who's Gonna Buy You Blue Ribbons When I'm Gone" as the basis for "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." A lawsuit helped to cool their friendship; a road trip to New Orleans finished it off. Dylan, rattled by the success of the Beatles, gave up on old-timey sounds and began to sing the body electric, a controversial move that alienated many in the folk community. Abandoned, Clayton drifted off on a sea of narcotics, becoming unemployable. In 1967, he put on a tuxedo and stepped into a full bathtub with an electric guitar. He had just turned 36.

Whether you think Search: Paul Clayton is a valuable act of historic reclamation or a hatchet job on one of the last century's great musical icons will probably depend on what you already feel about Dylan. Mollin's script, an uneasy cross between a play and a nightclub revue with footnotes, isn't strong enough to make its case. It is billed as "a wiki folk musical," and it consciously takes its structure from Clayton's Wikipedia entry, which gives you an idea of the level of complexity on offer. It's a relentlessly one-note affair that brazenly bares its agenda in scene after scene: Clayton is the passive fall guy, giving and giving to Dylan, a frizzy-haired trickster, a smiling purveyor of broken promises. The show never stops to wonder why Clayton puts up with such treatment. His online biography indicates that, as a student at the University of Virginia, he had quite an eye for the boys, but the character on stage at the Triad is one of the hundred neediest cases, a professional doormat whose dilemma is at first pitiable, then preposterous. It doesn't help that Clayton's dialogue is peppered with terrible would-be camp wisecracks: "I gave head ahead of my time," or "I've always been a sucker for a hot mouth organist." Randal Myler's direction does little to alleviate the woodenness of the script.

What keeps Search: Paul Clayton bearable are some fine folk song covers, including "Gotta Travel On," "Corrina, Corrina," and "This Land is Your Land," among others. If Peter Oyloe seems awfully stiff as Clayton, that's the way the role is written; his singing is more than fine. Jared Weiss has the unenviable task of impersonating one of popular music's great enigmas, and if his peppy, sometimes puppyish characterization has little to do with the intimidating, sunglass-wrapped sphinx that Dylan later became, it may be a truthful representation of the artist as a young hustler; in any case, he captures Dylan's distinctive nasal rasp. As Van Ronk, Michael Lanning delivers a pretty scorching version of "House of the Rising Sun," and, as the Rev. Gary Davis, Allan Harris gives the show a needed shot of electricity with "Twelve Gates to the City." Also on board are Ereni Sevasti as Suze Rotolo, the early Dylan girlfriend who lost out to Joan Baez, and Jaime Babbitt, as Carla, Suze's well-connected sister (who worked with the musicologist Alan Lomax).

The production's design values are fairly basic, although Shannon Epstein's sound design includes a variety of effects, including audiences both responsive and hostile, along with a "computer voice" that occasionally takes on the role of narrator. Petra Lent McCarron's projections offer many an evocative view of MacDougal Street in its folk song prime -- the Gaslight Café, Caffe Reggio, and Café Wha?, among others -- along with shots of Washington Square, and (my favorite), an edition of The New York Mirror, with the headline "3,000 Beatniks Riot in Village."

As it stands, Search: Paul Clayton is really only for hard-core folk fans; with a few judicious cuts (including the unnecessary sequence depicting Clayton's unhappy childhood) and a more dimensional approach to its lead characters, it might emerge as something more than a folk concert with pauses for heartbreak. Additional development work is indicated. -- David Barbour

(13 May 2015)

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