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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
He goes back to the 16th Century to discover the roots of the punk rock movement of the 1970's. There he uncovers a Dutch heretic, John of Leyden (Ean Sheehy), who in 1534 headed a group of Anabaptists in Munster, Germany. Leyden disavowed the Protestant work ethic, and found redemption in the negation of society's sense of order. Jumping forward to the Dadaists of the second decade of the 20th Century, and then on to the Lettrists and Situationists of the 1950's and 60's (among other intermediate stops), Marcus arrives at his destination in the 1970's: " the Dickensian figure with the green teeth," punk rocker Johnny Rotten (Jason Liebrecht) of the Sex Pistols. Given name: John Lydon.
Like most all of the efforts to realize a book on stage, fans of this one will no doubt feel cheated. ("Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" asked Rotten as he walked out on the Pistol's last concert.) But there is much to commend in this effort, and some of its pieces are potently memorable.
In order to tie the loose ends of those pieces together, the production introduces not one but two narrators. The first, called Dr. Narrator (Lana Lesley), serves as both host and interlocutor. The other, Malcolm McLaren (David Greenspan), the shopkeeper turned putative punk rock impresario, is more of a commentator. Essential as they are, neither is especially effective.
Lesley's character is intrusive, often misappropriating the audience's prerogatives -- usually just for comic effect -- and subverting the material in the process. The most egregious display occurs when she kibitzes with Guy Debord (James Urbaniak) as he shows his Lettrist film "masterpiece" -- a "situation" with the death of cinema as its goal, asking him repeatedly how he can expect the audience to sit through a film in which no images are projected on the screen. Elsewhere, she is given her own shtick to perform, most notably an impressive but unwarranted 4.5 minute condensation of the 20th Century, delivered at machine-gun pace. Finely and engagingly performed, but ...
The show is at its best when it finds a means to dramatize the critical events on which Marcus focuses: a free-form contortion of a "dance," performed by Dadaists Tristan Tzara (Sheehy), Hugo Ball (Urbaniak) and Richard Huelsenbeck (T. Ryder Smith) at Cabaret Voltaire; the Sex Pistols' famous 1976 "fuck" interview, hosted on television by Bill Grundy (Greenspan); Rotten's mind-boggling audition for McLaren, at which he sang Alice Cooper's "18"; and a surprisingly sedate -- as erudite as it is rude -- monologue, in which Rotten invokes Oscar Wilde and allows that his greatest influence was Olivier's portrayal of Richard III.
Lipstick Traces (the play) would have been immeasurably more successful had it fleshed out more of these moments, and spent less time on its many tangents. One might wish that its two narrators had been exploited to flesh out more of the flavor of the Marcus book instead.
Two members of this cast, Lesley and Liebrecht, reprise their roles in the original Texas production. It was a wise choice. Lesley has a sureness in her difficult role (I may not have liked the hand she was dealt but I can certainly appreciate the way she played it) that suggests a long-term engagement with the character; similarly, Liebrecht inhabits Rotten as if he knew him -- most brilliantly in the aforementioned audition. The remainder of the cast is comprised of New York regulars. Each, and most notably Urbaniak as the keenly droll Debord, brings plenty to the table.
If nothing else, this production might spur renewed interest in Greil Marcus's book, still available in paperback even though it'll be hard to speed-read its 500-odd pages in the brisk 75 minutes the play is on stage.