Working in the theatre, you quickly learn that you can’t please everyone all the time. Sometimes audiences steer clear of a show because it looks too dark or upsetting. Maybe the content is offensive, or the story line doesn’t appeal. Sometimes it’s just that strange, sinking feeling that everyone involved, simply put, is trying too hard.
To its credit, Rock Bottom: A Rock Opus doesn’t fall into any of these camps. The trick it pulls instead is much rarer, and somewhat baffling: it is a show that behaves as if it doesn’t really want to be seen. Which makes some sense, in an odd way. For these grungy, lethargic anti-heroes, stuck in a sinkhole of sex, drugs, and stale egos, appearing to try too hard will never be an issue.
Adapted from a 2009 novel by Seattle author Michael Shilling – who co-wrote the new script with Landless Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman – the play shambles along on the heels of Blood Orphans, a run-down four-member American rock band in the twilight of their potential. Dropped by a major label and sliding down the long hill toward irrelevance, the motley crew trips to a slow, painful halt in the red lights and dark recesses of nocturnal Amsterdam, where they nurse their guitars and, to a greater extent, their vices.
The cloud of collective brooding is so thick you could cut it with a knife. But the most interesting question – whether the tour has reached its end temporarily or forever – strikes a common chord with most fans of rock lit.
Drummer and lead singer Darlo (Vaughn Irving) stands for bullheaded, oblivious hope, and his efforts to keep the fire burning for his bandmates rings of that odd strain of blind ambition that can arise inside us when life backs us into a corner. Singer Shane (played by Baughman with sweet-and-sour resignation) stays on the ride despite his self-professed sex addiction and the quasi-stigma of a having penned a totally racist single a few years back. Bassist Bobby (Tom Jackson) is the deeply peeved, violently hotheaded bully we all remember being locked with in small rooms as youngsters. And lead guitarist Adam (Theodore Vossler) is the silent milquetoast who inevitably proves he’s got some heart and soul, if not much spine.
It’s fitting, in a way, that Darlo and his friends aren’t sure whether they actually amount to a band, because Baughman and Shilling don’t seem certain what sort of musical to make of Rock Bottom. There are only a couple of songs that incorporate the whole band (all four also play their instruments live), which makes the beginning and end of the show the most interesting parts almost by default. In-between, we follow the musicians (as well as their manager, played with suitable verve by Judith Baicich) alone and in pairs on their wandering paths through Amsterdam.
The play is comprised mostly of realistic scenes – they’re singing and playing because they’re professional musicians at work, trying out new songs and sharing instruments and ideas. In numerous other moments, though, the show shifts into musical-theatre mode, hosting sung numbers unmoored from the literal music-making we see earlier. It may not be impossible to use both tricks in one show, but here the style gets muddled and sometimes confusing, neither buoyant enough to operate on musical-theatre rules alone nor consistent enough to make sense as pure realism.
Director Melissa Baughman does find some good moments along Blood Orphans’ meandering path. As Shane, Baughman gets most of the real laughs (which are, overall, pretty infrequent), and his short little bedroom lament astride a lascivious Dutch schoolgirl (Maia Henkin) is particularly amusing.
Jared Davis’s set design, comprised of small multi-purpose platforms painted like graffiti’d concrete blocks, works nicely in the small DCAC space, as does the simple but effective projection design. And the mood – dingy and agitated as it is – is vivid and clearly felt.
Local musician Talia Segal appears mid-show playing Deena, a friend to Adam and an opening act to the band, and although her introduction draws somewhat too much of our focus away from the story at hand, her vocal and instrumental work impress.
What’s missing throughout, though, is a real sense of electricity. The script doesn’t afford Rock Bottom’s sodden, sulky denizens the level of crackling intellectual humor of a story like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – which Landless has also recently produced – nor does it manage to say anything with much scope about the nature of friendships and careers on the brink of dissolution.
We want to hope that Blood Orphans stays together. Or, we want to pray they break apart. It’s more difficult, however, to connect with characters pacing so idly in their own private purgatories. Sure, rock and roll thrives on some devil-may-care. But until that red guy with horns arrives to take Darlo and the gang away, we want a little more to care about too.
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Baughman
Book by Andrew Lloyd Baughman and Michael Shilling
Additional Material by Talia Segal and Michael Shilling
Directed by Melissa Baughman
Produced by Landless Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Approx. 95 minutes with one intermission