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A Likely Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In the world of David Cale, the smallest undertakings can lead to the biggest of life changes. A door opening, a walk on a beach, or a ride in a chauffer-driven car can cause a person's life to spin into any of a dozen previously unseen possibilities. Cale has titled his latest one-man venture A Likely Story, appropriate given the filigree of wonder and implausibility ornamenting each tale he spins.

Yet the show at the Lion Theatre, being presented by The New Group's new lower-budget division The New Group (naked), movingly makes the most unbelievable of stories shine with humane clarity. If the only relationship the play's five central characters share - each is the primary figure in one story in this dense, 90-minute evening - is their inability to connect with others, that's not a trait shared by writer-performer Cale or director Tamara Jenkins.

They've allowed the production to be sparse - Josh Bradford's lighting scheme is vivid, playing with shadows and illuminating Cale from unusual angles, but Jo Winiarksi's set is a white backdrop set against a black void, and Deirdre Wegner has costumed Cale in unremarkable street clothes. This disturbingly ordinary setting is all Cale and Jenkins need to create a captivating life lesson, which they do by depicting a succession of oddities representing the unpredictable events that make life, even at its saddest, worth living to the fullest.

Most of Cale's stories do have despairing or confusing undercurrents to them: His first character, Janet, for example, is caught in a loveless marriage, and seeks the arms of her hunky neighbor when the bombing of Baghdad convinces her the world is about to end. Later on, Cale portrays a gay actor who must confront his homophobic father, his distasteful co-star in a TV movie, and the depressive driver who's been hired to look after him while he's on location filming.

But in neither story does Cale allow the darker aspects of the subject matter to take hold for too long; each is handled with a humorous touch and possesses enough laughs to keep the stories enlivening. (Jenkins has also seen that they're appropriately paced, one moment quick as a racing heartbeat, the next as gentle as a snowfall.) In two of Cale's other entries, the lightness is even more easily incorporated: In one, an elderly man recalls a 1960 Malibu fling he had with Judy Garland, in another an investment banker defeatedly describes his wife's obsession with poodles and a female neighbor up the street.

Cale makes all these characters convincing, even if his own body and voice never completely vanish into the people he's playing. His easygoing onstage manner and method of highlighting the darkness of comedy of and the lightness of tragedy make each of A Likely Story's stories compelling, and each has a significant (and unique) shape that makes the evening constantly evolve and grow. Cale's presence onstage remains the only constant, aside from the wavering view of human happiness he presents.

At least, that is, until the final scene, when he portrays a woman named Susan so fed up by her husband's behavior in a Karaoke bar (melodramatically singing "The Wind Beneath My Wings" to her) that she runs out, as if to escape from him and her life. But while retreating, she accidentally discovers a pocket of peacefulness in a collection of rare, expensive fish shown to her by an old Japanese man; this sends her on a spiritual journey that lets her re-examine her life without having to run away from it.

When Susan returns to the Karaoke bar and finally takes to the microphone herself, her joyous voice soaring to the rafters, plangently suggesting that she's being truly liberated for the first time. This brings the real message of A Likely Story resoundingly home, that living through the humor and pain of loss, death, abandonment, and conditioned hopelessness can lead to true enlightenment. Susan's singing for herself is what allows her to be free; Cale's inspiring wish is that we all can find songs that will do the same for us, and that we'll never stop singing.

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The New Group (naked)
A Likely Story
Through December 18
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Lion Theater, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200