The Public is a distinct theatre, at times self-consciously so. Often it is challenging to recall its noble origins amidst the marquee Central Park players, and lobby filled with smug hipsters. But a physical set back (in this case a massive messy renovation) will do wonders to a persona. Plastic tenting drapes the facade (and sidewalk) of the building. Visitors are shuttled through a labyrinth of particleboard and exposed electricals to a makeshift box office. The Public staff seems to have multiplied threefold and have been trained to move everyone safely and informatively to their respect seats. Even with all of the helpful friendliness, I braced myself upon entering the theatre space. Yes, the seats are plush and comfy, but the stage is always awkward and it becomes exhausting to ignore the obstructing columns time and time again. Yet there it was, designed to be a southern (somewhat shabby) recording studio and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect stage. The set seemed to seep into the audience and into the very fabric of the infrastructure. Those annoying columns (wrappers in carpet remnants and secured with duct tape) seemed to have been created just for Andrew Lieberman’s design. The pieces of furniture are random in style and utterly realistic. Wires, recording devices, and used instruments dot the stage.
All of this would fit into the category of commendable “art installation” if it wasn’t just a hint of what splendor awaits in The Total Bent (Stew-book, lyrics and music with Heidi Rodewald.) This is the second major theatrical endeavor since Passing Strange (2008) and has elements that may now be seen as Stew trademarks. As in Passing Strange: the musicians are an integral part of the story and on stage. The core of the story is the parent/child tensions that result from a successful “coming of age.” Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a dynamic larger than life father/recording producer. His son Marty (William Jackson Harper) has been recording since he made the ladies swoon in church at the age of ten. Their generational divide centers around the “type” of music they each want to record. His father wants to continue to package spiritual songs for the living rooms of white people. The son has something a little more contemporary and authentic in mind. Beyond that issue, was a song that resulted in disaster (through a misinterpreted lyric) and a great recording that never was. The boy breaks free of his father’s overbearing grip (or does he?) and struggles to find his voice.
The music, not surprisingly, is excellent: a little bit gospel, a little bit rock and roll. There is a lot of foot tapping and swaying happening in the audience. It isn’t entirely clear what the time period is. There are times the costumes suggest the 1970s, yet the vernacular speaks to the present, presumably this is intentional.
Directed by Joanna Settle, the tight ensemble never falters. The British record producer (David Cale) is a wonderful addition with his energy, awkwardness, and pale angular Britishness. The church bus driver and janitor (aka the back-up band) played by Eddie R. Brown II and Julian Rozzell, Jr. are incredibly watchable. The use of space, light (Adam Silverman) and sound (Obadiah Eaves) are spot-on and add a roundness and completeness to the play. While there is never a dull or “down” moment, and one never tries to spy one’s watch in the dark, the show does need a trim. Two and a half hours is not extreme, but some of the emotional impact of The Total Bent is diluted with (what are in essence) repeated scenes. It is a compelling, well crafted and staged play that could be perfect with just a snip or two. No doubt in such an organic feeling piece, the cuts may hurt a bit.
There is a perfect storm at work right now. The Public, and all the metaphorical significance of its massive face-lift, and The Total Bent create a magic together. I’m not sure I’ve experienced theatre at which the lobby informs the experience of the play. This play would most certainly work in a multitude of venues, but if you can, see it now; at The Public.