“I hope I die before I get old.” – Roger Daltrey
Slim and Cavale are holed up in an apartment in the East Village. If you want to find them, ask the lobster boy standing on the corner of 1st Ave and 2nd street. He’ll give you a fortune cookie with directions to their lair.
The folks at One Old Crow Productions have transformed a studio apartment into a studio theater for their production of Sam Sheppard and Patti Smith’s 1971 one act Cowboy Mouth. Stepping through the door is very nearly like stepping through a forty-year time warp into the gritty, mythical, heroin soaked New York of punk rock lore. Alas, the Mars Bar may be no more, but the smell of the Ramones lingers in the peeling paint above Lucky Cheng’s.
The conceit of the play is openly Brechtian: the audience is almost sitting on the actors, on furniture dirty enough to have had a first life in the Chelsea Hotel, surrounded by the trash and detritus of a couple living outside the law. The sound design consists of an electric guitar, a snare drum, and ambient sirens on 1st Ave. This is artificial reality at its most artificially real: the director has not simply torn down the fourth wall; instead she installed a door, though which you pass to become entirely enveloped in the constructed play space. It’s almost intimate enough to warrant wearing a condom.
Prophylactics would be a good idea around Slim and Cavale. These two are on the lam — from the law, from Slim’s wife and child, from the world (cavale is French for “on the lam”). For an hour they make love, engage in bitter recriminations, play make-believe, order imaginary lobster rolls from a real lobster boy (see paragraph 1 above), and generally romp like sexually aroused junkies in Abed and Troy’s Dreamatorium. Their conversation ranges around territory you might expect a couple of dreamers — passionately in love and utterly, narcissisticly, almost sociopathically unconcerned with the welfare of others — to inhabit. What is love? What is reality? What would it be like to be a Rock God? In the end, the director lends the text a hand by making the lobster boy Slim and Cavale’s actual, Christ-like sacrificial redemptor.
On the other hand, prophylactics are unnecessary for this evening with two retro reprobates. Cowboy Mouth isn’t edgy or dangerous as much as it is sadly nostalgic. Even in 1971 the worst STD you could get was the clap. We hear their punk rock banter through the echo chamber of herpes, the 80s, AIDS, Reagan, Bush, Iraq I and II, 9/11, and The Great Recession. They sound naive, child-like, utterly innocent of any irony or foreknowledge of the many actual evils just around the corner. And just around the corner most of the shrines of the era — the Mars Bar, CBGB, and soon enough Lucky Cheng’s — have been erased. The memory of those dark exciting times lives only in memoir or revivals like this one.
History and its built-in ironies gives the lie to the idea that Slim and Cavale are on a vision quest trip with Jim Morrison to “break on through to the other side.” Sadly, the production recapitulates and amplifies the play’s nostalgia by not taking any real 21st century risks. For instance, even though we are told we are actually in Slim and Cavale’s private space, both of them stay prudently clothed. If you want to make a 21st century audience uncomfortable, you better make the action more in-your-face than internet porn. Even the sex scenes in Girls make Cowboy Mouth look puritanical by comparison.
The night I saw the play, the truest, most Brechtian “alienation effect” came from the audience. A guy who was there to review the show (I promised not to name names) rolled in half wasted and made himself free with the complimentary wine, whereupon he got so snot-slinging drunk it was almost too much effort for him to make out sloppily with his girlfriend (co-worker? rando-hookup?). Between slobbery snogs he noticed someone was putting on a play, which roused him to interject his drunken, pre-verbal dramatic criticisms. My only regret was that he didn’t jump into the fray with his fists. That would have been real reality. Not the highly artificial, sentimental, Romanticism that usually passes for edgy among people who habitually use the word “edgy” and the phrase “think outside the box.”
June 7 – 22
1st Avenue at 2nd Street