First, take out your calendars and put a check mark on April 7 -- the scheduled closing date of Earl Long in Purgatory. Although it's hard to imagine the show shutting down, stranger things have happened. And if you miss John McConnell's unforgettable performance as Earl Long, shame on you.
The play, by local journalist Jason Berry, is imaginative, informative and thoroughly absorbing. We meet Uncle Earl, standing with his back to us, in an abstract world that has three locations: an old metal hospital bed, a desk with a telephone, and a podium. Music (by Spencer Bohren and from the period) arrives via an antiquated little radio on a small shelf floating high in the air. Long is wearing a white bathrobe over his boxers. He is trying, with some difficulty, to pull his mind together and come to grips with this strange empty environment -- for, above all things, he hates to be alone.
We, of course, know where Long is, but he doesn't. And from the very beginning -- as we watch this crafty, convivial demagogue try to figure out and adjust to his posthumous state -- we are struck with a grudging admiration. He is a sort of "peckerwood" Cyrano de Bergerac, his language is vernacular and deliberately crass, but as spellbinding in its way as the sonnets and braggadocio of the Gasgon swashbuckler. And he is also a philosopher of love.
Love for Earl Long has two faces. First, it's the holy grail men seek in politics. "Most politicians hunger for love," he explains, adding after a moment of disgruntled reflection, "They ain't been weaned right." Then, with that uncanny, quicksilver nature of his, so at home in irony, he grumbles about the difficulty that pathology causes "us normal power brokers." The sentiment is bracing, but the adjective is hilarious. There ain't nothin' normal about Uncle Earl.
In any case, the second face of love is erotic. Memories of Blaze Starr, the stripper who was 40 years his junior, fill his spirit with sensual longings, not all that far removed from childhood memories of eating a cold, crisp, sweet, wet slice of watermelon.
Political skullduggery and the pleasure of the senses are Uncle Earl's joy and consolation. And he does need consolation, for there is a tragic undertone to his life. Something out of control is loose inside of him. Drinking and drugs exacerbate this lack of stability. In the end, from the safe distance of a theater seat, one suspends judgment. What a fascinating, grotesque, poignant, vital being. Where else but Louisiana?
Director Perry Martin's deft hand is evident in the easy flow and naturalness of the staging. Martin collaborated with McConnell on an earlier, critically acclaimed one-man show about Huey P. Long (Kingfish) that played around the country and ended up in New York. Earl Long in Purgatory deserves no less success.
Meanwhile, it would seem a crime not to mention, at least in passing, another sterling production: Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, recently directed at Rivertown Rep by Chase Waites. While McConnell gives us a stunning solo turn, the cast of Broadway Bound showed the power of a well-balanced ensemble, for there was not a single unsure performance in this gentle backward glance at the Jerome family of Brooklyn.
The story takes place in 1949 and centers on Eugene (Gary Rucker) and his brother Stan (Robert Richardson), as they make their first successful efforts to break into comedy writing for radio and TV. But it also encompasses their elders: granddad (Jeff Riddick); Kate, the mother (Julie Vorus); Jack, the father (Jim Chimento); and aunt Blanche (Grace Fraga).
Simon employs his usual modus operandi of jokes mixed with drama -- but for me, the comic and poignant are more comfortably matched here than elsewhere. Simon seems less worried about losing his audience if he leaves them a few moments without a laugh line. There are several extended one-on-one scenes that are quite touching; for example, the face-off between Kate and Jack, and the bittersweet dance story coaxed out of Kate by Eugene. Also, the humor, when it comes, is more often truly funny. (I have always found many of Simon's vaunted one-liners like verbal "laugh now!" flags -- they provoke the desired ha-ha from the audience by a kind of mass Pavlovian reflex.) There is, additionally, a pleasing untidiness about the ending that adds to the reality of the world portrayed.
Trish McClain's meticulous costuming and Lance Spellerberg's serviceable set added to this accomplished production.
- John McConnell, collaborating once again with director Perry Martin, smoothly moves from one Long tribute to another with his one-man show, Earl Long in Purgatory.