Playwright: Simon Stephens
At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn St. Tickets: 773-649-3186; SteepTheatre.com; $10-$38. Runs through: May 12
What Todd Rundgren memorably termed "the ever popular tortured artist effect" is on full display at Steep Theatre in Simon Stephens' Birdland, in which a British rock star spirals downwardand takes a few others with himduring a world tour. But though Jonathan Berry's staging has style in spades and a terrific charismatic central performance from Joel Reitsma, Stephens' story feels hollow at the center.
The problem is that Stephens doesn't ever let us see whether Paul ( Reitsma ) behaves abominably because he's an indulged rock star, or if his narcissism and destructive vindictiveness is a feature, not a bug, for someone who wants to stand in the spotlight in front of adoring throngs. There are hints that he may be suffering from mental illness, but once again we don't know if that's been exacerbated by his overindulgent lifestyle, or is something that has been masked by that lifestyle.
He's not an idiot. We learn that early on as he spars with Annalisa ( Cindy Marker ), a British expat journalist in Moscow. To Paul, everything in life can be quantified. In fact, "money graces us," he tells her, offering an eloquent ( if glib ) defense of the profit motive. But later at the Café Pushkin, where the married Annalisa joins Paul, his long-suffering bandmate Johnny ( Dushane Casteallo ) and Johnny's French girlfriend, Marnie ( Lucy Carapetyan ), Paul learns that not everyone has their price.
A tragedy in Moscow should provide the central anchor for the play, as Paul and Johnny's tour moves on to Paris and London. ( We never hear their music, so have no way of judging their actual talent. ) But the women hereeven level-headed Jenny ( Aila Peck ), a hotel employee and former mathematician in Moscow who Paul takes to Paris on a whimfunction mostly as mirrors for Paul. And that reflection becomes more distorted and dissolute as the two hours ( sans intermission ) unfold.
Berry's staging plays up the voyeurism of fandom by having the actors sit in folding chairs on either end of the runway-style stage, often snapping pictures on their cellphones. Reitsma, who is in every scene, wrings everything he can out of the material in what must be an exhausting performance. The rest of the cast play multiple roles and make the shifts with adroit precision.
There is also plenty of wit in the play, even if the laughter ultimately feels as hollow as Paul's soul. At one point, Johnny tells his bandmate that "anyone else would have glassed you." We get that impulseand it's to both Berry's and Reitsma's great credit that Paul's monstrous behavior holds our interest as well as it does.
The play's title comes from a Patti Smith song, by the way. If ever there were proof that one can be a vital artist for decades without being a monster, Smith's career demonstrates that. Guys like Paul will always be with us. What's unclear in Birdland is if they really have anything new to teach us.