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Nowhere Man

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 13, 2017

Olivia Boren and John Anthony Gorman
Photo by Donna Mejia

At the height of Beatlemania in the 1960s there was a persistent—and as Mark Twain would say, greatly exaggerated—report of the death of Paul McCartney. Song lyrics, album cover images, and record-tracks-played-backwards all pointed to the supposedly indisputable proof that Paul had died and had been replaced with a lookalike substitute. Such was the obstinacy of the 1960s version of fake news that Life Magazine published a cover story with the headline, "Paul Is Still with Us." Nowhere Man, Claude Solnik's thin but promising play currently being performed at Theatre for the New City, explores this pop-music urban legend from the perspective of the hapless Paul stand-in, whose most notable talent is his resemblance to a member of the Fab Four.

The play begins promisingly with a heated conversation between famed Beatles producer George Martin (Ed Altman) and the group's high-strung road manager Neil Aspinall (Tyler Beau Humphries). The future of the band is at stake: Paul McCartney has been in a car accident and is in critical condition. The accident, it seems, was caused by a young woman, who had been offered a lift by Paul and who subsequently went into a frenzy when she recognized the driver. Paul will need time and space to recover, of course, and in order to keep the press and obsessed fans away, Martin and Aspinall hatch a plan to hire someone to appear as Paul coming and going from the recording studio and for other public sightings. They decide upon Billy Campbell (John Anthony Gorman), a prize-winning Paul McCartney lookalike (and a character based on the person some believe to have assumed Paul's identity), to impersonate the singer, but he must be sworn to absolute secrecy.

Billy, a struggling musician and fulltime bartender, is enticed by the money, but his acceptance means he will have to go into seclusion (in one of Paul McCartney's palatial London residences) and give up his own identity for at least three months. He accepts the ticket to ride, so to speak, but most difficult for the young man is cutting off regular contact with his increasingly suspicious fiancé (Olivia Boren). The plot becomes more complicated (and less believable) with the appearance of Michelle (Sophie Max), who has her own secret connection to the real Paul, and her boyfriend Tommy (Michael Metta). The elaborate charade forces Billy to confront his own moral dilemma about the price of fame and the cost of not being true to oneself.

One hopes the playwright continues to develop this work as there is much to appreciate. The mingling of fact and fiction is generally credible until the machination starts to unravel, and the conceit is tantalizing. Nevertheless, the play, which runs only eighty minutes (including an intermission), misses several opportunities for elevating the farcical high jinks, as well as teasing out the trenchant social satire about our obsession with celebrity culture. Both of these aspects are inherent in the plot's premise and could be mined further in future iterations. Part of the current problem with the show's failure to soar may have to do with construction. The script is a series of very short scenes, some of which incorporate snippets of both recorded and performed Beatles songs. Many of these scenes, though, simply peter out, and Solnik and his director Donna Mejia have not sufficiently raised the stakes prior to the frequent blackouts.

The cast of six is generally quite likeable. Altman's performance of George Martin captures the divided loyalties of a producer willing to do despicable things for the sake of the music and the artists who create it. Max as the McCartney groupie and hanger-on brings the right level of silliness and deviousness to her role. Gorman is a standout as the Paul stand-in. He does not (to my eyes) look anything like a young Paul McCartney, but it doesn't matter. He brings to the part an everyman quality and youthful innocence that indicate he is in way over his head as soon as he agrees to go along with the scheme.

The production has been done on a shoestring budget, but a few well-appointed chairs, a bar table and piano, and a worn sofa provide everything necessary to convey the various locations around London. The costumes hint at the mod fashion of the 1960s, and the snatches of Beatles music playfully remind the audience of how some astute listeners detected the (intentionally?) coded messages regarding Paul McCartney's demise. While subliminal messages and innuendo may help keep conspiracy theories alive, heightened conflict would provide Nowhere Man with a stronger sense of direction and purpose.

Nowhere Man
Through June 18
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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