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A CurtainUp Review
We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time

And his dad is drunk; And his mom is blue/ And they scream all day/ This is what they do . . . — excerpt from song “The Feral Child.”
David Cale (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The summer is still young, but it’s not likely to bring a more emotionally-searing production than David Cale’s musical memoir We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, a co-production of the Public Theater and Goodman Theatre. Starring Cale, and sensitively directed by his long-time collaborator Robert Falls, it is the performer’s most personal work.

When the lights go up, Cale enters the performing space, whistling a snatch of the melody from “Canada Geese.” As he reaches center stage, his whistling fades and he begins to sing the words to the song: “Canada Geese/ Over the hillside/ Canada Geese/ Flying so high/ How do they know/ Where they are going?/ Canada Geese/ So high in the sky.” The song is simplicity itself. But it effectively introduces the avian imagery that will come to dominate the piece.

Cale’s voice is hardly what you would call sterling. But it does have real character. And he uses it to his dramatic advantage, allowing its folksy quality to color his characters who, like the author, hail from Luton, England. In a later song, Cale will quip that it was voted the “ugliest town in England.” And, on a more serious note, he will add that it has the “highest crime rate in Britain.”

Although We’re Only Alive doesn’t have a linear storyline, all of its events are thematically related and its five main characters—Cale’s grandfather Jimmy Egleton, his father Ron Egleton, his mother Barbara, his younger brother Simon, and himself—will one-by-one share their perspectives on their complex family life.

It can be confusing at times, as you must sort out just who the speaker is at any given moment. But Cale is a master of the monologue form, and, if you listen closely, it gradually becomes clear just what character is speaking and how he, or she, informs the drama at large.

We’re Only Alive early on focuses on Cale’s boyhood and how he learned to survive his parent’s troubled marriage. His father Ron, the son of a ruthless businessman who owned a hat factory, would get drunk every night. His mother Barbara, the daughter of a prostitute and employed in the family hat business, suffered from depression. The couple would argue relentlessly, and Cale often would be caught in their marital crossfire.

By age 7 Cale learned to decamp to his bird and animal hospital in the family’s backyard. Formerly a wooden shed, Cale repurposed the structure by painting the words ‘“Bird and Animal Hospital”’ over the door. It served as a kind of sanctuary for him—and eventually it would morph into an aviary for approximately 300 birds.

Cale's stories of his animal “patients” are sometimes comic and also endearing. Case in point: He once rescued a semi-bald chicken tied to a post that had been smeared with poison (it was being used as bait for foxes) and brought it to his hospital. There he rubbed an anti-septic ointment on its body and it gradually sprouted new plumage. He discovered it was a Rhode Island Red. And the reddish-brown hen soon began following him around the backyard like a shadow. This tale becomes the first of many that points up a kind of transformation, and equally important, a transcendence of one’s past.

Cale acts and sings his roles with a modest charm, but his performance is at its best when he inhabits his mother. Herelates the time that he “roped” her into taking him to the film Cabaret when he was only 13 (the film’s rating prevented anybody under age 16 admission to the show). After watching it they both got lemon meringue pie at a local restaurant, swapping their impressions of Minnelli’s plucky performance and trying to determine if she overacted at all. Before they left the restaurant and returned home, his mother said to him out of the blue: “One day you’re going to realize the potential in me that never saw the light of day.” Her words would haunt Cale forever.

Behind a scrim on stage, co-composer and pianist Matthew Dean Marsh superbly leads a six-piece orchestra that underscores the monologue. Rather than the music being played for mere atmospheric function, Marsh thematically integrates it into the piece. My press script, in fact, has a stage direction at one point that indicates that the music should “flutter” through specific scenes. Indeed, Marsh often manages to achieve this delicate flutter-effect with his orchestra, an aural counterpart to the avian motif that’s threaded throughout the text.

Set designer Kevin Depinet is also in sync with the avian imagery. He has a number of bird cages with their doors open suspended from the flies of the Anspacher Theater. This perfectly adds to the ambience of the production.

This one-person monologue is never boring. However, it might be disturbing to theatergoers who like their entertainment light and frothy. Some pretty grim events are recounted during the course of the 85-minute performance. Some of the the Grand Guignol material that surfaces in vivid color might be especially difficult to digets (2 women, in fact, walked out of the theater duirng some scenes). That said, , We’re Only Alive will not leave you indifferent. And as Henry Kissinger would often say: “It has the added benefit of being true.”

Editor's Note: To read our review of Harry Clarke, Cale's hit solo play , that starred Billy Crudup go here

Solo plays written and starring Cale:
Total Bent
Motherhood Out Loud

Shows featuring Cale as ensemble member:
Floyd and Clea-2006
My Night With Reg
Fastest Clock in the Universe

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We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
Written an performed by David Cale
Music co-written with Matthew Dean Marsh.
Directed by Robert Falls
Cast: David Cale
Sets: Kevin Depinet
Costumes: Paul Marlow
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
Arrangements and Music Direction: Matthew Dean Marsh
Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward
Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets: start at $45. Phone 212.967.7555 or online at www.publictheater.org
From 6/13/19; opening 6 /27/19; closing 7/14/19.
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 6/21/19

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