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Theatre in Review: Come Light My Cigarette/Van Gogh's Ear

Top: Erikka Walsh, Michael J. Farina. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Carter Hudson. Photo: Shira Tinati.

Maybe we can blame it on the Trump Administration. As I have frequently noted, summertime is the theatre's squirrely season, when all sorts of bizarre fancies are aired and vanity producers come out to play. Sensible theatre fans limit their exposure during these months, while professional theatregoers steel themselves and pray for autumn to arrive. This summer has been one for the books, however, what with Afterglow, The Crusade of Connor Stephens, Money Talks, Dear Jane, Curvy Widow, and A Real Boy appearing at regular, nerve-straining intervals. The most recent arrival, Come Light My Cigarette, may be the biggest lulu of all.

At least the other plays made sense, more or less; Come Light My Cigarette, playing at Theatre at St. Clement's, wanders so badly, sometimes from line to line, that you can get fixated, wondering whatever everyone involved thinks he or she is doing. In a brief prologue, we meet Vikki, who is dressed like a hooker and desperately needs twenty dollars for cab fare. Among other things, we learn (1) she had a date once, in a garage, with a man who sliced her belly open, leaving a scar, (2) a boyfriend was her first pimp, and (3) she had other careers, at the post office and in a Vic Tanny health club. That last detail -- the Tanny chain closed decades ago -- is part of a persistent confusion regarding the play's time frame.

Next, we are introduced to Kevin, a recently widowed, middle-aged accountant. It's an old truism that the lazy playwright's method of delivering exposition is to put a character on the phone, filling in some offstage character (and the audience) on all the relevant news. Not to be outdone, Come Light My Cigarette utilizes no fewer than six such phone calls, during which we learn that Kevin is corrupt (he shares with a client the dirty details of money laundering); anti-Semitic (I will spare you the epithets); anti-clerical (a priest who hangs up on him, he grouses, is "probably late nailin' a kid"); and anti-family ("God be with you, too, you old bitch!" he tells his sister-in-law). His speech about how there are no Jews in the Bible and Christ was never a Jew, because he was, you know, Catholic, is almost a masterpiece of offense. Almost.

Anyway, just when you think you can't take one minute more of Kevin and his vile musings, in comes Vikki, who, as it happens, is his daughter, who ran away when she was 16. This is no tender parent-child reunion. For one thing, Vikki is packing heat, and, for another, she has plenty of reason to use it: Starting at the age of eleven and lasting for five years, she was raped nightly by her father. This is especially confusing information because, a couple of minutes later, we will learn that Kevin spent most of his adult life trolling the balcony of his neighborhood cinema, looking for boy sex partners. Even more oddly, we learn that his late wife -- remember her? -- tolerated the fact of his many paramours. "I met a man...and she knew...this was different," he says. "Love came to Andy Hardy!" cracks Vikki, never at a loss for words.

In fact, you could say Vikki suffers from her own peculiar form of logorrhea, spewing purple prose all over the stage. She recalls how she ran away from home, "packing my forty-four, scorning the sun, moon, and stars forever, whiskey glass in hand, with a shadow of dust, and a smile by contraband, a lover on the couch and a guitar not played for a thousand centuries while we fashioned a touch of heroin for the long hours 'til dawn and a breeze my favorite gunman backing us up like a scar untouched by the finger on the trigger his eyes like burnt umber slumbering before the crisis of killing in the Thursday rain." I'm afraid that whole sections of Come Light My Cigarette sound exactly like something Allen Ginsberg threw up after a bad LSD trip.

It probably won't help the cause of clarity when I tell you that Danielle, Vikki's ex-lover, shows up, also armed with a shotgun. Danielle is a Broadway producer and she has her own grievances to unload. "I had commissioned a show for you!" she reminds Vikki, who, unimpressed, replies, "I gave you Christmas with snow and bells and a hundred surprises wrapped up in love. I filled your street with enough memories for a thousand lifetimes." The fact that Kaye Tuckerman, who plays Danielle, and Erikka Walsh, as Vikki, don't burst out laughing is a tribute to their professionalism. (Amazingly, Michael J. Farina, as Kevin, delivers his speeches with no apparent shame; that's a pro.)

Did I mention that Come Light My Cigarette is a musical? And if you think the dialogue above is overripe, hold on tight. As Danielle sings to Vikki: "Your eyes of darkness that never say yes/That send me blindly back to my hell/Are my companions on all my journeys/Midnight has cast its spell/A thousand madmen on my path/And a few dozen gods of wrath/To watch the show I do/My play that's written for you/My Broadway girl with the eyes far away...."

Among the many mysteries that cloud Come Light My Cigarette -- Who are these characters? What do they want? How did this ever get produced? -- the biggest may be the identity of Arnold L. Cohen, the writer and director, whose bio is strangely absent from the program. I've never heard of a playwright entering the Federal Witness Protection Program, but there's always a first time.

I suppose Cohen wrote the music -- nobody else is copping to it -- much of which sounds like he listens to Kurt Weill a lot, if not very closely. Craig Napoliello's set, depicting Kevin's seedy apartment, is atmospheric, but, along with his costumes, it contributes to the aforementioned time frame confusion. Ross Graham's rather good lighting plausibly and attractively suggests a number of psychological states. Before I write off the entire summer, however, I should add that it has contained some pleasant surprises, including Lear deBessonet's delightful take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, some very strong one-acts at Summer Shorts, and a moving revival of Marvin's Room, among others. Still, Come Light My Cigarette is a classic hot-August special, the kind of entertainment that is all but guaranteed to vanish by Labor Day, when the professionals come back.

On a far more accomplished, yet equally perplexing, note, is Van Gogh's Ear, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center, which offers some stunning musical performances, attractive visuals -- and nothing remotely like drama. If, before going into it, you are apprised of these facts, you might have a good time.

Ensemble for the Romantic Century, now in its sixteenth season, is dedicated to finding innovative ways of staging chamber music concerts. Based on the program's description of past productions, Van Gogh's Ear is a fairly typical example, combining excerpts from Van Gogh's letters to his long-suffering brother, Theo -- an art dealer who propped the artist up financially while struggling to sell his paintings -- with pieces performed by a string quartet and two pianists. Vocals are contributed by the tenor Chad Johnson, who is cast as Theo, and the mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum, double-cast as Gabrielle Berlatier -- who must go down in history as the young lady who received Van Gogh's ear after the artist sliced it off -- and as Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Theo's wife.

That I can identify these female characters at all is entirely due to the good offices of Google. Eve Wolf's script, such as it is, does very little to illuminate Van Gogh's life. Essentially a monologue for the artist, it hits the high points you will have heard about from art history class or earlier dramatizations, such as Leonard Nimoy's Vincent: the artist's poverty, ill health, bouts of mental illness, confinment in an asylum, and, of course, the notorious act of self-mutilation that provides the evening's title. But no real attempt has been made to forge a character, and, as played by Carter Hudson, Van Gogh often sounds like an aggrieved 21st-century American millennial, complaining about his lot in life.

So dramatically pale are these passages that they practically vanish next to the music, which is ravishing throughout. When not singing gorgeously, Johnson is left to stand around, striking concerned poses; the same is true of Tatum, who is made to play two ciphers instead of one. (The actor Kevin Spirtas is on hand in the silent role of an attendant and as Van Gogh's physician, speaking the only speech in the text not assigned to the artist.) The musical passages are meant, I suppose, to set a mood appropriate to the grim facts of the artist's life, but mostly they steal focus; you want to concentrate on these gifted musicians, but the whining painter at stage center keeps blocking the view.

Providing welcome relief is the often stunning production design. Vanessa James' set creates three different playing areas -- defined by a fireplace, an easel, and a small bedroom -- much of them providing surfaces for David Bengali's projections, which offer close-up details of various masterpieces, offering illuminating glimpses of Van Gogh's technique and color choices. James' costumes are meticulously done as well, as is the lighting by the great Beverly Emmons.

Donald T. Sanders' direction is well-done to the extent that it allows one sequence to flow gracefully into the next. Admittedly, it is possible to attend Van Gogh's Ear and have a thoroughly satisfying time. More often than not, I, too, was entranced by the music and visuals. But there's already a musical theatre piece -- by a fellow named Sondheim -- that far more successfully gets inside the fevered mind of a tormented 19th-century painter; compared to a fully integrated work like Sunday in the Park with George, Van Gogh's Ear is a dull, static affair. It has its charms -- but, really, I'd much rather see a play. -- David Barbour

(18 August 2017)

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