The Tear Drinkers
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The Tear Drinkers: Theater review by Helen Shaw
At the curtain call for Mike Iveson's superstrange musical The Tear Drinkers, one person was missing. The composer-playwright-star himself was nowhere to be seen—he had abandoned his piano and whooshed out the back the moment the show had finished. Then the video screen onstage lit up: it was Iveson, caught on camera, doing his hair in the bathroom.
Iveson! I shook a mental fist. Godammit, he'd gotten me again. Familiarity with this downtown artist hasn't made him any more predictable, though he keeps using the same ingredients (an Eeyore-ish deadpan, that piano) in each dish. If you've seen him perform in Elevator Repair Service shows, you know him as the droll fella with the otter-sleek hair and sneaky side-eye, the one whose timing is always one. Weird. Beat too late. As a playwright, he has the same syncopated quality. The Tear Drinkers potters along, never in in a rush. Have you ever seen a cabaret singer between songs, noodling on the keys and murmuring into his mic? That's the Tear Drinkers vibe, for 90 minutes.
The set up is a classic. It's the first day on the job in an unnamed government facility for Noel Park (an extremely sweet Don Castro), and his boss Leona (April Armstrong) is giving him a hard time. Noel’s task is to clean the toilet (he has a nude-jaywalking ticket to expunge from his record), but the good-natured dude is oddly talented at eliciting spontaneous confessions. This comes in handy around the site's four “transferees,” who may actually be extraterrestrials with a taste for human-generated saline. Music makes them do strange and otherworldly things, and those often in the bathroom.
All the actors are strong, but of the transferees, Anthony R. Brown is a particular pleasure—Brown has worked with Iveson before, and he embodies the style's required mix of outsider-affect and sudden near-random sparks of virtuosity. Everyone does burst into song from time to time, accompanied by the composer, who sits at his piano sporting a droopy blonde wig. Yet, for all Drinkers's zaniness, its structure is ruthlessly simple. (It's basically Incident at Vichy.) Drinkers is Iveson's second full-length play. The first, Sorry, Robot, was superficially similar, also a wry take on technology, also a downbeat sci-fi parable about feeling just left of human. Tear Drinkers is parsecs better, though, and it balances his genuinely bizarre impulses with a tidy storyline to nice effect.
Worry not, fans of Iveson’s gonzo oddities. There is a song about President Polk leaving office (sample lyric: “Senators, goodbye / Congressmen, stay dry”), and someone—I'm not saying who—turns up in a human-sized koosh ball costume. (Parker Lutz did set and costume design.) The show is evidence that Iveson has turned into a confident director; he uses that closed-circuit camera in the bathroom inventively throughout, and assembled a strong team, including superstar video designer Charles Atlas. Still, there's no question The Tear Drinkers won't be for everyone. It's slow. It's nuts. And Iveson's wrong-footing rhythms ensure that when a joke is funny, the show deliberately deflates the moment. I'd say it was alienating, but I can see I've played into the playwright's hands. Iveson! I shake my fist. Goddammit.—Helen Shaw
The Kitchen (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Mike Iveson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.