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Theatre in Review: We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time (The Public Theater/Goodman Theatre)

David Cale. Photo: Joan Marcus.

David Cale's new piece at the Public is his most personal, and also his gutsiest. In solo works written for himself and others, he has conjured a universe of richly imagined characters; here he turns his sights on himself and the members of his immediate family, who provide him with some hair-raising material. As Mark Russell -- who first presented We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time at the Public's Under the Radar Festival -- writes in his program note, "A few of us knew some of the details of his life, which we could pick up hints of in his characters." But surely nobody was prepared for the gut-punch of a story he unfolds here.

We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, a monologue with songs, covers the first seventeen years of Cale's life, allowing him to channel, among others, his younger self, his parents, and his brother Simon, all of whom formed a uniquely unhappy household in Luton, England. As hometowns goes, Luton wasn't promising. Cale dismisses it as "the only Northern town in the South, noting that it was "voted 'The Ugliest City in England'." He adds, in song, "Every day it feels like winter/Mocked in plays by Harold Pinter." Clearly, this is not going to be an exercise in nostalgia.

And yet -- at least in the first half -- Cale applies his novelistic eye for detail to portray his brutal childhood with something rather like tenderness. Luton in the postwar years was the center of the hat-making industry in the UK. Cale's father, Ron Egleton, runs the family hat business, supervised by his tyrannical father, Jimmy. It's an existence in which a suffocating bourgeois respectability is darkened by hints of the disreputable. That the Egletons are probably mobbed up is signaled by their socializing with The Krays, the notorious twin-sibling gangsters of the period. That Ron really wants to be a farmer is of no account; firmly trapped under his father's thumb, he becomes an obese, pill-popping drunkard who has little use for his wife and children.

Barbara, Cale's mother, is, in many ways, the center of the piece. Born on the wrong side of town, she may or may not have been used by her mother, Elsie, as "a sexual ploy." According to Ron -- who, for reasons that will become clear, can't entirely be trusted -- Elsie and Barbara would "walk in country roads, pretend to pick berries. Cars would slow down and Barbara's mother, Elsie, would get in the front seat of the car, Barbara would get in the back. She'd be sitting there while her mother would be carrying on with men in the front. Turning tricks. For extra money, you know." He adds, "Day we got married, Barbara had sex with her ex-boyfriend up against a washing machine."

As a young woman, Barbara goes to work in a Luton hat factory, where her knack for design is spotted by the female proprietor. The prospect of a career and a life of her own looms, but, wooed by Ron -- and weighing his unappealing family against their obvious wealth -- she reluctantly agrees to marriage. Her reward is a drudge position in the Egleton family factory, and, later, a dreary existence at home -- a Georgian-style residence named, with true middle-class aspiration -- as "The Pippins" - alone with her sons. When Ron comes home at all, it is late at night; their union is sexless and deprived of affection.

Growing up in a parental war zone, the boys keep to themselves. Simon, who also suffers from overweight, stays in his bedroom, reading about electronics and making model airplanes. David is another proposition altogether, sitting on the backyard swing and belting Petula Clark's "Downtown" at alarming decibel levels. Ron has no use for his effeminate son, warning him against Stephen, the troubled gay adolescent next door, who, at fifteen, has already attempted suicide. Ron's mantra is, "Stay away from the money lenders, the drug addicts, and the queers." One night, however, Barbara notices David running around, naked, in the backyard garden. "I see him pause at the bottom of the garden, look up at Stephen Theobald's window. I think, is my ten-year-old boy trying to seduce the fifteen-year-old next door? Have I given birth to the Little Lolita of Luton?"

Barbara finds common cause with David, whose activities including keeping an aviary (packed with 300 tropical birds) in the garden and worshipping various pop divas of the sort popular with all-male audiences. For example, mother and son catch a screening of Cabaret, enjoying an after-film dessert. As Barbara describes it, "Just the two of us. Eating lemon meringue pie. Me listening to him fret over whether Liza Minnelli may have possibly been overacting in her first scene in the film. My strange boy."

Up to this point, We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time is a fairly conventional memoir, given a big lift by Cale's singular wit and sensibility. Then a savage act permanently shatters the family, trapping them in a web of grief and scandal. I can't say more about it, except to note that Cale introduces it so casually that a few seconds may pass before you notice your breath has been taken away. The repercussions of this event include David's soul-destroying appearance on the witness stand, an astonishingly detailed visit to the scene of the crime, and David's encounter with the profoundly broken Jimmy, who keeps repeating, pathetically, "Are you my boy?"

As subsequent events make clear, Jimmy is hardly worthy of anyone's sympathy; David's challenge becomes how to effectively extricate himself from his depraved relations and find his own way in life. Cale's handling of material that could be sordid or bathetic is nothing less than remarkable; even when the characters are doing their worst, he refuses to caricature them. He even treats with surprising charity; describing an outing with Barbara, during which she tears up and says, "One day you're going to realize the potential in me that never saw the light of day," he tactfully refrains from commenting on her knack for making any troubled situation all about her.

From time to time, Cale slips into songs -- written with the composer Matthew Dean Marsh -- that, with their repetitive melodies and penchant for false rhymes, are unlikely to linger long in anyone's memory. Still, Marsh's arrangements give them a lush foundation and the best lyrics hint at deeper feelings underneath a quotidian surface. The best of them "All the Smart Girls (Listened to Joni Mitchell)" gracefully expresses David's sexual awakening, supported by a cadre of newfound female friends: "Bonding over 'Court and Spark'/And 'For the Roses' too/Everything stayed unexpressed/Except in my bedroom/'The Last Time I Saw Richard' became every boy I knew/From that point, like Dylan I was 'Tangled Up in Blue'."

The piece has been directed with infinite tact by Robert Falls, who gambles, correctly, that the combination of Cale's reverberant speaking voice, slightly awkward physical manner, and reedy, pitchy singing only add to his vulnerability, making his story all the more affecting. He trusts the tale and its teller, to excellent effect. The production design is simplicity itself: Kevin Dupinet has supplied a bare stage with the band located upstage behind a scrim, and arrangements of birdcages and model planes that fly in for cameo appearances. Jennifer Tipton's lighting is beautifully unobtrusive, as is Mikhail Fiksel's sound design. Paul Marlow has dressed Cale aptly.

The mystery at the heart of the story is how the horror that destroys David's home is also a kind of liberation. This isn't one of those my-problem-and-how-I-solved-it pieces -- Cale has been a busy performer for more than thirty years and it is no surprise that he has, despite everything, managed to thrive -- but he ends We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time on several grace notes, including a riotously unexpected Liza sighting and an update on Simon's escape to a better life. He also provides an update on the fate of the family hat factory, information capable of bringing a tear to one's eye: It underlines one of the script's key themes, that one powerful antidote to trauma is the making of art; it can also be a form of liberation. The Public has made a peerless contribution to Pride Month in New York, but I suspect this piece will have legs long after the parade has gone by. -- David Barbour

(28 June 2019)

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