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We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 27, 2019

David Cale
Photo by Joan Marcus

A spoonful of sugar may very well help the medicine go down. But in We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, David Cale's solo musical memoir opening tonight at the Public Theater, a tale that is entangled in the brambles of a troubled childhood is soaked in so much treacly romanticism that it loses its power to disturb an audience, even if it continues to haunt its teller.

Cale, an experienced and respected playwright (Harry Clarke) and performer (The Threepenny Opera; The Total Bent), comes across as an unassuming and sympathetic presence. When he first walks onto the stage, he is whistling and then singing a cappella a sweet little child-like tune he has written with co-composer Matthew Dean Marsh, called "Canada Geese" (Canada Geese over the hillside/ Canada Geese flying so high/ How do they know where they are going?/ Canada Geese so high in the sky). Gently does it, for sure. The simplicity of the moment works nicely as an invitation for us to lean in and listen. We understand right off the bat that we won't be pounded by the sort of insistent pay-attention-to-me memoir play that is far too common these days, both on and off Broadway.

So far so good. Cale quietly and with touches of humor and song fills us in with the broad outlines of his childhood and what it was like growing up in a rough-and-tumble industrial town north of London called Luton, which, we are told, had the unfortunate distinction of having the highest crime rate in all of England. Not the ideal place for a gentle, misfit child who spent as much of his time as possible hiding out in the garden shed, where he cared for stray animals and, especially, for his every-increasing collection of birds. The work involved was a welcome distraction from the tension in his household, ruled over by two unpredictable, bickering, self-absorbed parents who had little time or interest to spend on David or his brother.

After a while, however, the straightforward narrative segues into a series of monologs in which Cale takes on the personae of his mother, his father, his grandfather, and his brother, allowing each to tell a version of the increasingly ugly situation at home that ultimately led to a tragic result that I will not reveal here. This spinning off into the different family members works best when Cale takes on his father's personality. Ron Egleton (after Cale fled the world of his youth while still in his teens, he also discarded his family name) becomes the most three-dimensional "other" character in the performance. He is mean and gruff and self-pitying and complicated, and Cale plays him to the hilt with a startling change in voice, tone, and posture. As Ron, Cale gets to the heart of the matter: "I may have passed away," Ron says, "but a bit of me still lives inside him. I gave him his fear."

This is what we need to hear more of. But the story Cale is most interested in examining is that of his mother, Barbara, a woman whose personal dreams and ambitions were, in her son's eyes at least, thwarted and crushed after she married Ron. We learn a lot about Barbara through Cale's impersonation of her, but, problematically, the more he shares, the more we feel ourselves pulled into the artifice of theatricality. This is the play's biggest weakness. We are not hearing Barbara's voice at all, only Cale's dreamy version of it, which, unfortunately, comes packaged with the accompaniment of a six-piece orchestra that only adds to the sentimentality of the evening. What we really need to hear more of is the story of David Egleton, the boy he used to be. Perhaps Cale is not yet ready to tell that story straight on. I'll gladly return when he is.

We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
Through July 14
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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