by Jeff Grygny
Everyone who has lived past life’s midpoint eventually faces a dilemma: to age gracefully, if grumpily, or to defy time and risk looking like a fool (there are other options, but the dilemma presents itself like this). Trunk Songs, an original play written, directed by, and starring Dale Gutzman, gently (and sometimes not so gently) lays the matter bare: along with the aches as your body slowly surrenders to entropy, there is a sense of loss: the world changes, and much that you loved passes away (all things are impermanent, sayeth the Lord Buddha). And to add insult, there’s the feeling that life has gone on merrily without you.
Trunk Songs is a serio-comic rumination on these cheerful themes, in the persons of two songsmiths. More Tin Pan Alley than Lerner and Lowe, they’re a couple of schmoes who, though they never made it really big, have managed to stay in the game by turning out competent if unremarkable ditties for forty years: they have survived. We first meet Murray and Sidney in the middle of a creative drought: in a scene that plays like Samuel Beckett exploring the passive-aggressive habits of New York Jews, we learn that they have been commissioned to set music to a violent, profanity-ridden script about a serial killer. Some of the most amusing moments come from their assessments of the current state of musical theater. Andrew Lloyd Weber takes a particular drubbing. “Everybody in musicals is angry and depressed now,” Estelle, Murray’s wife, laments. “What ever happened to ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning?’” (Gutzman can’t bring himself to trash his beloved Sondheim—though surely a prime culprit in bringing dark, complex themes to Broadway—even in jest.)
Sidney and Murray wrangle like an old married couple; Sidney is a mensch, if prone to kvetching; Sidney is the kind of homosexual for whom the word “flaming” was invented. Though neither lisping nor mincing, he’s a big, fussy drama queen, more than a little narcissistic, and seemingly oblivious to the messes he leaves in his wake. Into the action springs Athol, the latest in Sidney’s long line of boyfriends who are not half his age; a socially-conscious millennial and a playwright, who just might have written the not-so good play that they are currently not-working on. Athol steps in to patch up a quarrel between the two partners, and through his help, with moral support from Estelle, they push though their writer’s block, and the show goes on! With songs like “A City in the Grip” and “I’ve Got the Electric Chair Blues,” well, let’s put it this way: West Side Story, it’s not. Sidney drives the drama into crisis by serial-schtupping a string of chorus boys, and…the world turns.
Carl Chadek plays Murray with impeccable timing, and, though prickly and, in Sidney’s phrase “buttoned down,” his heartfelt love for his partner shines through. Gutzman’s Sidney is clearly a (rather brutal) self-parody, which brings a certain raw poignancy to his performance. Carole Herbstreit-Kalinyen is light and comfortable as Eileen, a traditional woman who still loves the old tunes; while as Athol, Jake Russell brings emotional vulnerability to an articulate, confident character.
And when this brief, bittersweet comedy has played its last minor chord, and you step out into the street, a bit older, and perhaps a bit wiser, the air smells fresh and good. Maybe it’s the scent of artistic honesty, that clears the mental palate and lets us face our life again—however many years long it happens to be.
* The title refers to the Russian playwright’s famous observation that if a gun appears in act one, it will be certain to fire before the curtain closes.
Off the Wall Theatre presents
“A very very funny new comedy by Dale Gutzman”