120 AND FOREVER
at Cafe Voltaire
Sweet Jane Productions' 120 and Forever is an experience. You know what I mean? It's an event on the rock-and-roll order--loud and fast with driving rhythms and screaming souls. A love trip for two down a highway to hell that happens fast and is over quickly. Wham! Bam! Thank you, audience.
Lights up on Johnnie, a songwriter and guitar player who "dreams of a race in a black Charger looking for the place where rock and roll lives." He might be a dreamer, but at the moment he's been thinking about his girlfriend Rosy and he's pissed off. With Led Zeppelin music blaring in the background, he writes some notes on a big sheet of paper, throws the pad down, picks up his guitar, stops himself before smashing it against the wall, then throws his beautiful body on the mattress and writhes in agony.
In walks Rosy wearing a tight tank top, cut-off shorts, and black thigh-high stockings. She's not too happy herself, turns off Led Zeppelin, throws on Prince, and starts bopping around the apartment, just to bug Johnnie. A little stereo war begins. Rosy leaves the room. Johnnie jams angrily on his unplugged guitar. "Fuck!" he exclaims helplessly.
It turns out that Johnnie's mad because Rosy went for bread--yesterday--and just returned. "A day and a night later, and you don't even have no fuckin' bread, man!" Johnnie yells out.
The bread comes flying back into his face and Rosy screams from the other room, "I love you Johnnie! You know I do! You just scare the shit out of me!" She runs back in, jumps on him, wraps her legs around his waist, and kisses him passionately. So goes rock and roll.
Todd Tesen and Shannon Stepan do a great job as Johnnie and Rosy. Johnnie is a raw nerve end, pure emotion, only capable of reacting to circumstances that seem always beyond his control. Rosy reacts in the same knee-jerk manner, but she at least has some sense of volition, some power to control her world. Together, they're a couple of tough young people with tender souls, although we see a lot more toughness than tenderness.
The problem is we don't know how they got to be this way. Playwright Jimmie Cumbie's got a strong sense of poetry, a great ear for rhythm, a knack for capturing speech patterns. But he's so caught up in conveying the poetry of the piece he neglects to set the characters in any concrete context that would define their relationship.
Johnnie and Rosy are beautiful losers. They could be players in a classic American tragedy if we knew who they were. We do know that they're going on a trip, even though they've got almost no money. This trip is to be Johnnie's rock-and-roll quest, the race in the black Charger, speeding along at 120 into infinity. Rosy's going along because she loves him, I guess.
Amy Landecker's staging effectively presents an America littered with alienated people and frustration, the perfect foil to rock-and-roll redemption. The cop who breaks up the fight with a truck driver, the waitress offering to warm up their coffee, the desk clerk who ignores them, seem like icons out of an Edward Hopper painting.
Wham! Alienation factor number one: a truck driver who gives them a lift (Michael Shannon) picks a fight, accusing them of being "full of Goddamned ignorance, picking a fight with your guitar." Bam! Alienation factor number two: they fight over money and cigarettes in a dive hotel. Wham, bam! Back in Chicago, they break up and Johnnie cracks up, drinking whiskey and writing bad poetry. His band is angry and doesn't support him. Alienation factor number three.
In the meantime Johnnie and Rosy get to deliver soliloquies: Johnnie talks about his fear in small American towns, how he feels rejected and misunderstood when all he wants to do is make friends. Rosy tells us what it's like to love Johnnie (not easy). At the end, Johnnie tells us about what Rosy meant to him, how she was his redemption, how once he looked over at her sleeping body, "so soft and still," and "she was saving me right then and there and she didn't even fucking know it."
He closes with a quote about rock and roll from Jim Morrison: "You gotta ba-bam shoo," on and on with a bunch of scat. "Yeah, right," he says derisively, ending the play. "That was some kick-ass shit," I think, leaving the theater. Thing is, like the whole of 120 and Forever, I don't know exactly what that's supposed to mean.