Arms On Fire, book and lyrics by Steven Sater, music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by Byam Stevens.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"In the modality of the visible."
James Barry and Guiesseppe Jones; photo: Rick Teller
When a strange man with wide eyes, a leather jacket, verbal quips that almost make sense and an odd affability comes to your door at night, drawn there by the very personal music you’re playing on the turntable, what do you do? Do you open up your door and let him in? That’s what Ulysses, an immigrant from Honduras, does in the new musical play "Arms On Fire" that has opened the season for the Chester Theatre. Once you’ve taken that step, opening your door and letting in strangeness you become a prisoner of that peculiar intensity that is The Smith.
Smith is compelling, actually, and hard to resist. A hustler who never gives anything to anybody, Smith, or The Smith depending on his mood, has a delicate way with odd collections of words, ultimately sounding much more knowledgeable and profound than he really is. Ulysses falls under his spell, his generosity and his peculiarities. Ulysses has lost the only thing that mattered to him, the singer Josephina whose recordings and whose personality dominate his life. Finding Smith gives him something else to concentrate upon, to fuss over and care for in bad times. Smith, naturally, personifies bad times.
This is the situation in this three character play with songs. Ulysses slowly and irrevocably opens up his life and his humble apartment in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district to a man who brings illness, corruption of soul, beauty of soul and a strange solidarity in his wake. The two of them ultimately share the music that haunts the Honduran and the outgrowth of that music which is love. But it is a new sort of love, one that both men find enduringly bonding and separating at the same time.
Guess what? This is not an easy show to love. The people are strange. The music is strange. The lyrics are sometimes hard to understand and sometimes hard to endure. Like the saying about "Vegas" what happens in these rooms in NYC stays there. The hope of creating something lasting and all-consuming, a song of love that expresses one man’s feelings in another man’s voice, may never leave the room - we don’t know for sure. But at the end of it all, it doesn’t really matter if the feelings are real, all of the feelings.
Guiesseppe Jones plays Ulysses. In a very cut-off way he is fascinating to watch. He gives little and yet leaves the impression of having expressed everything that haunts him. In a compelling speech he finally explains his loss to Smith and Jones gives this more impact in his unmoving way than might be expected. At the end we should feel great sympathy and empathy here, but instead we are only confused by his generosity and his gentleness wondering what he thinks he is saving. Jones’ performance displays all of the outer man and little of the inner, but that is more a problem with the script than with the interpretation.
Natalie Mendoza is the lost spirit from Ulysses’ past, Josephina. She is gorgeous, glamorous, vocally delicious and emotionally the most troubled spirit we see in this play. Like a classic succubus she pursues these two men in different ways, but unlike the unholy sprite she cannot make the contact that would justify her actions in the present situation or in the past.
Smith is played by James Barry, an actor swiftly becoming one my favorites. Here he plays a drug-battling curiosity whose new ambition is to become conjoined with a man he won’t touch and a woman he can never meet. Neither goal is attainable, at least within the time restraints of the play. His final scene with Ulysses is pathetic, Smith having reverted to a drugged state that imitates infancy. Barry plays it with a simplicity that would make Michael in "Peter Pan" seem like a Eugene O’Neill character. It is hard to understand which of these men is the subject of the story Sater is telling, but in Barry’s hands the story is completely his own.
Byam Stevens has done a fine job directing these three actors in this play. Attention is focused on these people in just the right ways. You cannot take your eyes away from them for an instant. Stevens seems to have found a way beyond the limitations of the script to force two besotted souls into the faces and mouths of his men.
The confusingly over-designed set by Travis a. George disappears quickly and gives the three players exactly the visual spaces they need to interact with one another. Somehow what is difficult to explain becomes the graffiti-scrawled surface of the city. Lara Dubin does some wonderful things with her lighting design, even providing that miraculous sensibility of a haunting to play out in colors of its own. However, sometimes it seemed to be overdone, overdrawn. Charles Schoonmaker defines his characters well with his costumes and Hunter Spoede has done some excellent work with the sound design for this play.
One must assume that the goal is to take this play with music to New York and make it into the hit that the authors’ first collaboration, "Spring Awakening" became during its Broadway run. I’m not sure that is possible here; the show is too personal, too intimate for that. However, that there is some sort of life after Chester seems assured. For fans of the very unusual, this is a must-see. For musical fans, not so much. And for traditionalists, this show can either stretch you or leave you cold. Either way, this is a special sort of theatrical event.
Jones, Natalie Mendoza, Barry; photo: Rick Teller
Mendoza and Jones; photo: Rick Teller
Arms On Fire plays at the Chester Theatre at the Chester Town Hall, just off Route 20 through July 7. For information and tickets call the box-office at 413-354-7771 or go on line at www.chestertheatre.org.