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Theatre in Review: 1969: The Second Man (Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop)

Jacob Brandt. Photo Chad Batka

For this eccentric late-summer musical entertainment, Jacob Brandt, conceiver of 1969: The Second Man, draws our attention to the life of an American semi-hero, Buzz Aldrin. If that sounds a little cruel, consider that Aldrin was part of the legendary crew of Apollo 11 and was, after Neil Armstrong, the second human being to set foot on the moon. At first glance, it's the kind of achievement that enshrines one forever in the halls of history; in reality, Aldrin has spent his life in Armstrong's shadow, a permanent supporting player in one of the twentieth century's most stunning events. And, given a family legacy of mental illness and his inability to convert his space-voyaging fame into any kind of satisfying life on earth -- struggles he has documented in his own memoirs -- he often seems to have been a permanent occupant of the dark side of his own personal moon.

His saga is told to us in a concert format that combines narration with very brief dialogue scenes and plenty of songs. If you've seen either Hundred Days or The Lucky Ones, by The Bengsons, you'll be familiar with the territory. I confess to having had heart palpitations when I realized what I was in for, fearing an evening of coyly rendered personal confessions. And, in a couple of its weaker moments, Brandt, who also appears, tries to insert himself into the storyline, exposing his fears that he might not be very special -- a recurrent nightmare, it seems, for those of his generation -- and mooning, if you will, over a photo of Aldrin that he has long owned. The evening also begins on a musically weak note and the first couple of numbers are not especially strong. What 1969: The Second Man could use, more than anything else, is a song that acts as a mission statement, setting the tone and style for what's to come.

But Dan Giles' script is filled with lovely, striking passages and, in combination with Brandt's songs, 1969: The Second Man builds a strong case for Aldrin as tragic and absurd, a figure out of Chekhov or even Beckett or Ionesco; the show also functions as a requiem for a vanishing idea of masculinity. It is sardonically noted that Aldrin, "the handsome rectangle," fits the astronaut template: a white Christian husband and father and a decorated fighter pilot, to boot. He is also brilliant: "By 1962 standards, he is literally smarter than a computer." And he is ambitious: Quoting from the dedication of his MIT doctoral thesis, that it may contribute to the space program that he openly yearns to join, someone notes, wryly, "He dedicates his thesis to himself."

Be careful what you wish for: Aldrin joins the space program and ends up on the moon, shadowing Armstrong; back on earth, both men and their fellow traveler, Mike Collins, embark on a world tour filled with parades, receptions, and cheering crowds. Even as he basks in the sunlight of fame, however, Aldrin is dogged by feelings of displacement. His sorrows have many sources, the script suggests. One is the shift in perspective caused by the "overview effect": "You see your home from far away. Green and blue. Sheer of atmosphere keeping it alive. Borders don't matter up here. What matters is: how breakable, how temporary, how round." Another is his family's history of depression and suicide, a legacy that claimed his mother. And there's the nagging unhappiness at not being Armstrong: The first man out of the capsule, the first pair of feet -- in human history -- to stand on this untrod soil. Nothing in his background has equipped him to deal with such elusive, yet corrosive, emotions. When asked, for the umpteenth time, how the moon voyage felt, we are told, "Buzz followed his training: job now, feelings later. Now it's later. Those feelings are gone. He doesn't know how to answer. He went to the moon and didn't feel anything."

Eventually, the tour ends, the crowds disperse, and Aldrin is left floating in his own personal void. While Armstrong continues his career, Aldrin slides: His marriage fails and he struggles to find meaningful work, ending up briefly -- and unhappily -- selling cars. Soon, he is selling his autograph for cash. One of the show's most quietly devastating moments consists of this simple, stark image: "In the living room he hangs the famous photo. Buzz on the moon: eight feet tall. He sits beneath it. He drinks and watches news all day, alone."

Brandt's songs cast a moonstruck, melancholy mood of their own, matching compelling melodies to words that sometimes have a touch of poetry: "If the moon were a silver coin, what could it buy?" "Change This World" imagines Aldrin's thirst for fame and achievement: "We're gonna change this world for the better/We're just not sure how to do it yet/We'll just have to do it faster/And make sure that it's broadcast on every television set." "Lullaby: When You Were Gone" gives voice to Joan, Aldrin's fed-up wife: "So I'm leaving in the morning/On an 8:07 train/Y'know I thought that I'd been boring/Turns out that I was sane." "Landing" goes a long way toward getting at the sheer strangeness of the experience shared by Armstrong and Aldrin as they alit on alien territory.

The cast of actors/musicians, led by Brandt, are personable and gifted with musicianship and stage presence. They don't play specific roles so much as tell the story, stepping in and out of characters for a line or two. Tony Aidan Vo, who made such a strong impression earlier this summer in The Great Leap, here displays his skills on the drums and guitar, not to mention a knack for imitating the CBS pundit Eric Sevareid. Paris Ellsworth has a nice sideways sense of humor that surfaces from time to time; he is also an ace violinist. Maya Sharpe brings striking looks, an unusually arresting voice, and some incisive line readings.

In addition to being well cast, Jaki Bradley's production is sensibly proportioned and sensitively attuned to the script's pervasive sadness. Oona Curley's production design (worked out with co-scenic designer Daniel Prosky and co-lighting designer Stacey Derosier) places the band between two side banks of lights framed by enormous reflectors, with a mirror (that contains a neat infinity box effect) upstage. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's costumes -- which rely heavily on the idea of jumpsuits and pants with a homemade tuxedo look -- have a raffish charm. In addition to providing exactly the right amount of reinforcement for this small space, sound designer Jim Petty, of Five Ohm Productions, provides a number of effects, including a rocket countdown, radio news reports, and crowd voices.

By the time we see video of the moon landing projected onto the drum kit, it's easy to understand the peculiar fate of a man who was doomed to play out his life in front of "a people who hate failure" because "it's un-American." 1969: The Second Man is thoroughly up-to-date in its style, yet it tells a story as old as this country: Aldrin belongs in the vast gallery of American achievers who, in their moment of greatest glory, understood, all too bitterly, that it would never be this good again. - David Barbour

(28 August 2018)

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