We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
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Theater review by Helen Shaw
In his three-decade career, David Cale has spun erotic, funny, sometimes violent stories into solo works performed by himself or sometimes by others (such as Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke). A few of these shows have seemed to flirt with autobiography, but we’ve never been sure which parts of their surreal plots were accurate. Now, in his heartfelt monologue-with-songs We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, Cale tells the truth. He grew up as David Egleton, the grandson of a tyrannical, possibly gang-connected English hatmaker who browbeat Cale’s alcoholic father and artistic mother. Imitating the accents of each of his family members, Cale tells us about the pleasures they found where they could: his own love of a DIY animal hospital; his brother’s enthusiasm for planes; his mother’s delight over a garden; his father’s fondness for his time in prison. In this last area, Cale’s memoir suddenly veers into bloody and horrifying territory, and the reason for his insistent air of self-empowerment (sample lyric: “I’m alive!”) comes abruptly into view.
In its production choices, We’re Only Alive is sweet as treacle: Birdcages sometimes hang overhead, or a feather falls meaningfully from the ceiling; Cale’s transatlantic voice, which stretches long over its vowels, is accompanied by a lush, harp-filled score. (Cale wrote the music with Matthew Dean Marsh.) Cale is an aesthetic kinsman of monologue stars like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, but with this kind of treatment, he sounds a little singsong and old-timey, like a record you’d put on for children. Yet the content is terrifying. This juxtaposition can be jarring, until you remember that Cale was only a boy when his family fell apart. An air of nostalgia pervades the show: Cale clearly misses his mother and feels lucky to have survived his childhood, but he also longs for the innocent he was. “Feral child, there was a feral child!” he sings, and it’s part of the show’s strange, interesting, ambivalent attitude toward suffering that Cale looks transported with delight as he does so.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By David Cale. Music by Cale and Matthew Dean Marsh. Directed by Robert Falls. With Cale. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.