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Cartoony Country

Jon Langford’s dark hillbilly ghosts get the lite treatment in Lofty Deeds.

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In the second act of All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, Mark Guarino's homage to the music and art of Jon Langford, the title character tells a smarmy rock journalist/horse (stay with me), "You're going to write a piece that in no way represents the people and places my stories come from." Which is funny, because that's exactly what Guarino has done in this ambitious but disappointing production from the House Theatre of Chicago. The band sounds pretty good, but the show suffers from narrative rootlessness and underdeveloped characters. Apparently unable to decide on what story he's most interested in telling, Guarino throws a lot of strands at the wall to see what will stick—and what will allow a segue to a musical interlude.

And that's a damn shame, because Langford deserves a great, imaginative theatrical setting. The Welsh-born Chicago transplant cofounded the legendary British punk band the Mekons and has become the godfather of alt country with the Waco Brothers and other local bands. (He's also built a career as a visual artist using classic country and western iconography, and the House was smart enough to get him to do the painting for Lee Keenan's set here.) But Langford's thorny adult complexity doesn't lend itself well to the House's trademark adolescent whimsy, no matter how much director Tommy Rapley tries to up the octane.

Langford's art acknowledges his dark side. In a 2005 interview with the Onion's AV Club, he said his work grew out of "the promo shot and doing paintings of promo shots and photographs that were used to advertise or sell a person or a product. It seemed poignant to me once they were old and torn up and forgotten, because they're meant to be bright and shiny and optimistic. When they're covered in nicotine and ripped up, it's a different effect. . . . It just became more about the state of the nation, you know, and about the death penalty and the shortsighted culture that doesn't have any history and doesn't really care about the future."

All the Fame of Lofty Deeds, named after a Langford solo recording, needs the nicotine-stained, beat-to-shit poignancy Langford describes. But despite some self-conscious absurdist flourishes (like the horse), Guarino's story would be at home in any jukebox musical. Hailing from some nebulous part of the Real America, Lofty Deeds forms a band with his brother Lefty, who dies tragically young. (The demise-of-siblings motif in rock and country gets a pretty cogent summary in the Sun-Records-set Million Dollar Quartet.) He marries a woman so mysterious that her face is covered with a black veil, but abandons her and his never-seen kids for life on the road. Then he signs his life away to the Evil Major Label suits in return for corporate sponsorship from a multinational soap company and ends up hopped up on pills and Jim Beam in the desert, haunted by his past (literally: Lefty keeps popping up, pierced with symbolic arrows, like a honky-tonk Saint Sebastian), and wondering what the hell happened to the dream. Guarino adds a few mystical figures in addition to Lefty's ghost, most notably Tumbleweed—a burning bush, actually—whose role in the narrative is anybody's guess. Muse? Conscience? Cassandra? Siren? Sure, OK, something like that.

Lofty is supposed to be old enough to qualify for a retirement home. He should probably resemble Harry Dean Stanton, but Nathan Allen looks like he's on the fresh side of 30, which doesn't make it any easier to relate to him. Though Allen gesticulates theatrically with the booze and the pill bottles, little in his overplayed performance suggests a worn-out soul. Ironically, he comes across as exactly the sort of plastic New Country performer Guarino's script rails against. Allen isn't a bad singer by any means—he's just not an interesting one. A show that's at least in part about "the death of country music," as one Waco Brothers song puts it, requires someone with dangerous charisma to burn—someone who can growl as easily as he croons.

The House does a lot of things well, but dissipation has never been one of them. Their cartoony Pop Art approach can enliven classics like The Wizard of Oz that have a built-in otherworldly charm, and they've also shown a deft hand at anatomizing everyday magic in fables such as The Sparrow. But they tend to prefer dark lite to the real thing, and, combined with Guarino's uncertainty about where the heart of his story lies, their tendency to flatten out the unsavory edges of life makes for a show that seems stuck in the brush.

What's needed is to clear away that brush, including the limp stabs at absurdism. (The talking horse made me want to drop a dime to a glue factory.) Guarino should remember that it's specificity, not vague iconography, that makes a character live. People can be—and music stars certainly should be—larger than life onstage. But we have to have a sense of who they are first. It's hard to care about Lofty's rise and fall because his story's so generic. Guarino also has a tendency to wink at his own jokes. Mentioning that the assisted-living facility his estranged family has selected for him is next door to a gun shop, Lofty adds, "Something about that is poetic, but I hesitate to say what." The grim irony is already there—we don't need the playwright nudging us in the ribs to make sure we get it.

The onstage band (Evan Bivins, Matt Bivins, Matt Martin, Adam Przybyla, and music director Andy Wagner) accompany Allen's rather pedestrian vocals with beautifully modulated and soulful takes on Langford's songs. And Patrick Martin's Lefty brings just the right mournful aura to Langford's "Dragging My Own Tombstone." Between the songs and the visuals that bedeck Keenan's set, it's clear why Guarino and the House would find inspiration in Langford's work. It's just frustrating that they didn't find a way to translate that inspiration into a theater piece as idiosyncratic, lively, and decidedly grown-up as Langford's worldview.

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