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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael C. Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso
Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Walter Tevis's 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth and the various film versions that have been made from it (including one from 1976 that starred David Bowie) are about a humanlike alien who comes to our planet and finds himself violently, well, alienated from the people around him. It was likely not the intention of Bowie and Enda Walsh that their new musical riff on the property, which is titled Lazarus and just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, would convey that message through its dysfunctional relationship to the very form of its storytelling. Yet that's exactly what's happened.

So confused and confusing is this evening, which has been directed by Belgian minimalist Ivo van Hove (who is currently represented on Broadway by the stripped-down and hollowed-out revival of A View From the Bridge), that it almost makes NYTW's previous tenant, Elevator Repair Service's impenetrable Fondly, Collette Richland, look like a model of well-tooled dramaturgy. (Okay, okay, I said "almost.") Though it's an intriguing experiment that has been occasionally well cast with performers like Michael C. Hall and Michael Esper, it's a success only if you think getting a David Bowie musical to open in New York is itself a praiseworthy achievement.

But Bowie and Walsh haven't really written a musical; they've written a sort-of sequel to Tevis's book, or more accurately Bowie's film of it, that for no evident reason happens to contain songs. (We'll get to that soon enough.) It picks up more or less where the movie left off, too, with the alien, Newton (Hall), crumpled on the floor, years after his failure to save his family on his drought-stricken planet, in an alcoholism-induced stupor. He's visited by his business partner, Michael (Charlie Pollock), and his assistant, Elly (Cristin Milioti), who try to get him to acknowledge them and eat, to little avail.

Michael Esper with Brynn Williams and Krystina Alabado
Photo by Jan Versweyveld

We learn much in short order. That Elly's husband, Zach (Bobby Moreno, pointed and pained), is jealous of the countless hours she's been spending with her boss, to the point he suspects an affair. That Newton constantly falls prey to hallucinations that he's becoming increasingly unable to differentiate from reality. (There's the suggestion that they're inspired by all the TV he watches, but that's an interpretation as useless as any other.) That Newton is being watched by a mysterious figure who looks like a teenage girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), and seems to know a lot about him. And that Newton is being pursued by a secretive, malevolent figure known only as Valentine (Esper), who's willing to do whatever it takes —including murder —to get close to the object of his obsession.

Characters appear and vanish without explanation, beyond the (safe) assumption that Newton is forgetting them out of existence (that he doesn't meet most of them, strangely, is inconsequential), and much of the show's intermissionless two-hour running time is consumed with the various people and plot threads combining in various configurations and then being left behind as litter. The show ends at an arbitrary point, after a series of arbitrary actions (including, theoretically most significantly, Elly taking the place of Newton's dead wife by coloring her hair blue, and the creation of a masking-tape spaceship), that mesh with the spectacular, psychedelic video design of Tal Yarden to create perhaps the most robust theatrical rendition of a death dream (or, maybe, a cryogenic mind melt) I've ever seen.

Uh... So what? That question, alas, I can't begin to answer, except to say that Lazarus is an incomprehensible mess that's worth seeing only for the same reasons drivers rubberneck at freeway collisions. It's a case of hot talents turning out cold fish because they don't seem to know what they're doing or how to work together. Bowie's a pop star some 30 years past his prime successes, who in wanting to branch out (the show reportedly started with him) somehow got hooked up with collaborators who couldn't give him what he needed.

Walsh, his professional success with Once (which started at NYTW and earned him a Tony Award for Best Book) notwithstanding, is not a nimble, creative librettist; he's prone to writing around ideas rather than actually exploring them. And van Hove likes deconstructing scripts more than he does staging them, never eschewing dynamic, in-your-face business when subtlety or subtext might work better. (I still think the moment that best defines his aesthetic is Judge Brack drenching Hedda Gabler in V8.) When you have a director ripping apart and pasting back together something that has no form to begin with, what chance does an enterprising first-timer —to say nothing of the audience —have?

As a result, the narrative can't be followed, and the primary tool we might have for eliciting meaning from it, Bowie's score, is so disconnected that it could extracted from the script with no loss of coherence. It is, however, the highlight of Lazarus, from an objective if not theatrical standpoint. Bowie has wrenched out plenty of good, subversive melodies that hint at the characters' darker psyches (and are rendered with throbbing insistence by musical director Henry Hey and his onstage band), though nearly every song ends up a haunted meditation on something or other (even if it's not always obvious what).

The title song begins with Newton singing "Look up here / I'm in heaven / I've got scars that can't be seen." The closest thing to a moving number is Elly's drunken farewell: "Jasmine" —there's no character named Jasmine, but never mind —"I saw you peeping / As I pushed my foot down to the floor / I was going round and round the hotel garage / Must have been touching close to 94 / Oh, but I'm always crashing in the same car." And Valentine's explanatory number is an insinuating love-for-the-devil-type piece with lyrics like "The rhythm of the crowd / Teddy and Judy down" —no, there's no Teddy or Judy, either —"Valentine sees it all / He's got something to say / It's Valentine's day."

Esper leaps feet first into his portrayal of that monstrous man, and is truly delicious in the sweet nastiness he finds within. Esper's is the performance of the show, though Hall's distant despondence, rating 17 on a scale of 1 to 10, makes him a stalwart centerpiece, and Caruso deploys a universe-weary ebullience that stands in stark, compelling contrast to it. Milioti is rather less inviting as Elly, barely attempting to unravel the character's tangled mess of contradictions, but who could do more with the part? Like everything else, it's an anthropomorphized acid trip, here for effect, not impact.

That's the biggest hurdle Lazarus needs to overcome. If it's ever to be a good show in its future incarnations (which are all but assured, given how fiercely this run has been selling), it must above all make sense, even on its own chaotic terms. Someone who understands and respects musical theatre structure and shape would help a lot, as would a director interested in staging something that takes place somewhere other than inside his own head. (The lone set, by Jan Versweyveld, is Newton's nuclear-fallout apartment, and it's clear by minute five it's going to be more a crutch than a necessity.) Given what's present, Bowie's goal seems to have been to write an explosive, fluid, free-form work that wouldn't stop moving and evolving. Someone should have let him.

What's been produced instead is lumpy, self-important, and soulless, like Newton lost in a world where facts matter. The most elemental underlying concepts and Bowie's score are good enough to warrant a future life for the effort. But right now Lazarus, like the biblical figure of the same name, is just plain D.O.A.

Through January 17
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
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