Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
When: through June 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If you want to spend two interminable intermission-less hours watching an obnoxious megastar slowly self destruct, then by all means go see the U.S. premiere of British playwright Simon Stephens’ “Birdland” at Steep Theatre. Joel Reitsma gives a convincing and at-times riveting performance as Paul, the rock ‘n’ roller so bent out of shape by limitless fame, fortune, and power, not to mention drugs of course, that he’s a total jerk who abuses and alienates everyone around him.
But if, like me, you find his story too predictable and rather pointless, his sheer nastiness and relentless obsession with pushing the boundaries will become unbearable. We’re probably supposed to ponder the question of whether or not a person can maintain his humanity in the face of unchecked success and adoration, but I just wished for an intermission and wanted the train wreck to end.
We first meet Paul in a Moscow hotel room, on the last legs of a world tour that has him filling stadiums that hold 75,000. He’s capricious enough to demand a perfectly ripe peach at midnight from room service, but certainly no dummy, as his interview with married expat British journalist Annalisa (Cindy Marker) demonstrates. He argues that everything can be quantified and the profit motive rules, but later discovers that not everyone has a price when he mistreats her at a cafe where they’re having a drink with Johnny (Dushane Casteallo), his songwriter/bandmate/best friend, and Johnny’s French fiancé, Marnie (Lucy Carapetyan).
Compelled to destroy the happiness of those he should care about most, Paul takes Johnny’s faith in Marnie’s love as a challenge, basically seducing her and then saying he’s going to tell her intended. This drives the poor girl to suicide, which should be the centerpiece of the tragedy but instead is just another in the series of increasingly horrific and humiliating episodes.
As the tour moves to Berlin, Paris, and London (though we never hear the band’s music, so we have no idea if they are any good), on a whim Paul convinces Jenny (Alla Peck), a down-to-earth mathematician turned hotel worker, to travel with him. But he soon starts to treat her like property, and after an intensely painful scene during which he mortifies dead Marnie’s parents, she’s had enough of the hollow high life.
An awkward backstage encounter with his working-class father (Jim Poole), who reluctantly asks for a very small sum of money, has the potential to partially redeem Paul, but he twists the knife at the end, dispelling any sympathy we might have for him. Not surprisingly, he also ticks off his manager and Johnny, and a reversal of fortune accompanies his unraveling and descent into paranoia.
Paul is on stage the entire time, and director Jonathan Berry seems to want us to simultaneously get inside his head and see him as those around him do. The other actors often sit on folding chairs at either end of the alley-style stage, frequently snapping photos of him on their cell phones, Joe Schermoly’s generic contemporary set features a few pieces of metal-and-fabric furniture and an elaborately lit floor from lighting designer Brandon Wardell that flashes and goes dark to reflect Paul’s mental state. Thomas Dixon’s sound design snorts and crackles to the same end, an interesting approach that almost works—except that some audience members on opening night thought something was wrong technically.
Emily McConnell’s costumes are mostly spot-on, and Reitsma’s Paul—at times witty and almost charming—gets able support from the other ensemble members, who all play multiple roles yet create distinctive personalities.
“Birdland,” which takes its name from a song by Patti Smith by the way, might be more palatable if it were cut by 30 or 40 minutes, but at the moment it’s an irritating slog about a clichéd subject. Reitsma arguably does his job of creating a monster too well, so caveat emptor!