By Samuel L. Leiter
David Cale’s We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time has a very long title for a play that takes such a short amount of time to perform. Every minute of this 90-minute solo piece, however, is used to full capacity. Employing both song and direct address, Cale plays a sequence of characters who tell, compellingly, the tragic family history he endured in his youth.
Originally staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre by its current director, Robert Falls, it also was seen at the Public’s “Under the Radar” Festival, where its positive reception led to this production.
The British-born Cale, known for one-man, multicharacter plays with music, had something of a hit a season or so ago with his first such play for someone else, Harry Clarke, starring Billy Crudup. That one was fiction but We’re Only Alive . . . , like others he’s written and performed, is essentially a memoir cum musical.
Cale, who’s performed in all media, including on Broadway in the 2006 production of The Threepenny Opera, is a lanky, 60ish, singer-actor-composer from the small city of Luton, Bedfordshire, where most of his story transpires. Once known for its hat-making industry, Luton is a town whose pejoratives include “The Ugliest City in England.”
Cale dresses casually in jeans and a loosely-worn, brown-black plaid shirt (Paul Marlow is the designer). He works on a small, empty platform on the Public Theater’s Anspacher stage, provided by designer Kevin Depinet with only a single stool. Although he has a rich baritone (which wavers a bit on the high notes), his voice is well-amplified (sound design: Mikhail Fiksel) by a body mic as well as, occasionally, a standing mic.
The mics may be necessary to prevent him from being muffled by the half-dozen musicians behind him: viola, harp, cello, trumpet, clarinet, and piano, the latter in the capable hands of music director and co-composer Matthew Dean Marsh. Seen mostly in visually appealing silhouette (thanks to Jennifer Tipton’s sensitive lighting), they’re arranged across the rear, backed by a cyclorama.
Cale and Marsh’s music, which runs beneath much of the dialogue, significantly enhances its drama. It is, for most of its dozen songs, the kind that supports the storytelling of the lyrics rather than the kind you feel like singing afterward.
Cale’s generally straightforward tale begins when, revealing his real name, David Egleton, he reverts to his seven-or-eight-year-old self, talking of when he created “a bird and animal hospital” for injured creatures in his backyard shed, and later began raising hundreds of tropical birds in an aviary his grandfather helped restore.
A sequence of players in his early life—which takes us from his grade school days to his late teens, when he immigrated to New York—narrate in their own persons. Cale, using no props, changes his voice, accent, and attitude just enough to instantly invoke them.
We meet David’s late, depressed, artistically talented mom, Barbara, with her suspect sexual past; his similarly depressed, fat, alcoholic dad, Ron; his overbearing grandfather, Jimmy, a social acquaintance of the vicious Kray brothers and owner of a successful hat factory, where David’s father and mother worked; and David’s eccentric, overweight brother, Simon, talented at tinkering with radios and TVs and fond of building model planes (the image of flight is a persistent one in the piece).
And, of course, there’s David himself, a sexually ambivalent boy whose interests veer toward singing Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” with a fascination not only for Judy Garland but, even more, after Barbara takes the 13-year-old David to see Cabaret, Liza Minelli.
We hear, of course, of important non-family members, like Mrs. Berman, owner of a rival hat factory. That’s where Barbara was happily employed as a designer before giving it up to shift, with sorry consequences, to a supervisory role at Jimmy’s place when she married Ron.
A vivid picture of Cale’s dysfunctional, well-off, bourgeois family, and the pressures he suffered, emerges, particularly when we hear the bickering of Barbara and Ron. All of it leads (spoiler alert!) to a remarkably traumatic, bloody event, when David was 16, the trial that followed, David’s startling responses to strict yes or no questioning, and the bitter yet promising aftermath. What happened, which was blazoned across the tabloids, is brutal and must have caused Cale considerable pain to write about and perform.
Fortunately, as We’re Only Alive . . . makes clear, Cale was able to fly from his past and, eventually, exorcise it publicly on stage. When he closes by singing “The Feral Child,” with its joyously repeated survivor’s refrain of being untamable “’Cause I’m alive,” we know it’s working.
We’re Only Alive for a Brief Amount of Time. Through July 14 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, Greenwich Village). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus