This off-the-hook young woman isn’t Britney Spears, and she’s not supposed to be the only part of Carly Mensch’s new play, Len, Asleep in Vinyl, that’s even moderately interesting. But why dwell on technicalities? This slutty yet alluring creature - who goes by name of Zoe, and is played with sour-dope relish by Megan Ferguson - is enough to energize your perception of the present in a way that nothing else in this play remotely manages.
Everything else spirals so hopelessly down this Baby Boomer’s nightmare time warp, which has been lackadaisically directed by Jackson Gay, that any anchor to today - even a tarty, embarrassing corner of it - is a welcome diversion. From the clothes (designed by Jessica Ford), which include flare-collared men’s shirts and a flower-pattern silk kimono (also worn by a man, but never mind), to the characters’ unwavering preference to absorb music from LPs rather than CDs, to their frequent references to an iPod demo recording as a tape, this play’s landscape is constantly at right angles with reality.
That’s at least partially intentional, as Mensch sees the world - or at least the portion of it for which rock music is the clearest heartbeat - as in danger of being thrown from its axis by humanity’s tendency to deify its most destructive forces. So when superstar music producer Len Moody (Michael Cullen) storms off the stage when he should be accepting an award for Zoe’s latest mega-hit, he’s making an impact. When he holes himself up in his remote forest cabin “like a rock-and-roll Paul Bunyan,” he’s making a statement. And when he works to turn things around, both with Zoe and his aspiring “chamber pop”-star son Max (Daniel Eric Gold), he’s making lasting change.
Instead, she’s populated her world with clever archetypes that make her points through the absolute minimum of effort. Len is the tortured genius, who could fix everything if people would just listen. Max thinks too much. Zoe never thinks at all. William is an empty vessel, not fooled by the vapid Zoe but floored by the spiritually in tune Len. Isabelle is the staunch realist lost amid a crowd of dreamers. But no one feels remotely real.
Zoe stings because she so resembles Spears, and Lyles’s usual clear-eyed sophistication is a close match for a woman who wants to be the lifeguard for those around her drowning in the crippling, craven culture they’ve created. But even their performances are calculated rather than organic, on some level as silly as Cullen’s caffeinated-insomniac intensity, Gold’s unconvincing counter-culture mien, and especially McCabe’s tongue-chewing line readings that convey more affectation than youth.
For any of these people’s concerns to make sense in more than an abstract way, we need to believe that they’re on the frontlines of the war between the past and the present, not cowering in a fallout shelter. They’re all avoiding something, which makes for compelling drama only if someone is forced to face what they most fear. Here, that never really happens.
At least one speech late in the show suggests the story Mensch is trying to tell. Real rock music, Len tells Max, shouldn’t be affected: “It’s about heat and intensity and emotion. It’s about channeling the beast within.” He continues: “It’s even purer than religion. It’s biological. And there’s no point of shoe-horning yourself into something if, in the long-run, that’s really all it is. Not part of your nature. Or. Perhaps futile would be a better word.”
This speech is stirring not just because of its naked idealism, but because it describes Len, Asleep in Vinyl as well as it does music. This isn’t a play “that comes from the pit of your stomach and your hips and your finger tips and your spleen,” as Len claims great rock does. It is what it most loathes: futile, a restless attempt to conclude a conversation it always seems afraid to start.
Len, Asleep in Vinyl