Fallen Angel | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at the Halsted Theatre Centre

The rock and roll world is packed to overflowing with semitalented songwriters just aching to sell out--if only they could find someone to buy. They form bands by the hundreds, usually with friends from school, to play their songs in crummy little clubs in hopes that someone will come along and discover how wonderful and original they are. Occasionally, some of them get the chance to be heard by a real live industry pro--who almost always tells them something along the lines of "You've got talent, kid, but, well, I don't hear a hit yet. But keep trying." And most of them do. At first. Eventually, most stop trying and look for a real job; the law firms, stock brokerages, trading pits, and market-research offices of Chicago, New York, and LA are packed--at every level from messenger to manager--with people who tried to make it in music and failed because they didn't have anything very special to offer.

Fallen Angel is about one of those people. His name is Will, and he has a band and a trunk full of songs. The problem is, they all sound like other people's songs. His unimpressive retreads of 1970s groups like Heart, Cold Blood, Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band, Edgar Winter's White Trash, and Fleetwood Mac aren't bad, they're just not very good.

Unfortunately, the same is true of Will's story, at least as it's told in this "rock and roll play" by Billy Boesky. Unabashedly autobiographical, Fallen Angel is theater as therapy: Will, Boesky's alter ego, grapples with psychologically crippling anxiety about success and failure as he tries to stir up record-company interest in the Fallen Angels, his band. But like the songs Boesky has written for Will, Fallen Angel tells an unexceptional story that, despite intermittent laughs and an occasional touching moment, isn't particularly memorable or significant, except perhaps to the man who wrote it.

Set in New York's Greenwich Village--nicely evoked in David Birn's cramped set, decorated with Adair Peck's sprawling mural in the energetic, expressionistic urban-funk style of Red Grooms--Fallen Angel charts a few weeks in the life of its hero, played with a nice blend of ingratiating charm and irritating self-absorption in an Albert Brooks mold by Jonathan Goldstein. It's an eventful time for Will. His band is due to be scouted by an agent for recording executive Fred Kirshman (the name suggests music-biz honcho Don Kirshner); his relationship with girlfriend Gretta (the token chick in his otherwise all-male band, played by attractive, gritty-voiced Amy Correia) is headed for an obvious crisis; and his perpetual skin rash, which he thinks is psychosomatic, is finally diagnosed as atopic dermatitis, an annoying, incurable condition Will inherited from his father.

The rash is metaphoric as well as medical--a symbol of Will's paranoia that he will end up like his dad, a once-successful businessman now doing time for unnamed crimes. Though Will has done nothing wrong, he feels sure that he too will somehow get "caught" and be disgraced--a dread that stretches his understandable nervousness about his musical future to nearly unbearable limits, until his obsessiveness alienates his girlfriend, his fellow band members, even his dermatologist.

The dermatologist turns out to be the best thing in the show--she's the only element unusual enough to seem fresh. An unseen, godlike female presence who interrogates Will in a voice that's a cross between the Wizard of Oz and a WNUA disc jockey, Dr. Newberger (Eliza Foss) asks hard questions of her patient, and his self-lacerating yet evasive answers are quirkily, sometimes painfully funny in a Woody Allen vein. By contrast, Will's relationship with Gretta (who breaks up with him because he's too preoccupied with the commercial aspect of music) is predictable and cliched. So is Will's friendship with lead singer Luke, who leaves the band for a solo contract (a patently unbelievable turn of events as depicted here--Michael McCoy, who plays Luke, has a serviceably gritty vocal style, but it would be the rare record company that would sign him unless he dropped 50 pounds and learned how to dance).

Even more unsatisfying is the relationship between Will and his imprisoned father, on which so much of the play hangs. Boesky never states the nature of the father's crimes, though surely the crime would affect the way Will feels about the situation. The omission is especially troublesome because the playwright is the son of Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street trader whose corruption embodied the reckless selfishness of the Reagan years, which we're now paying for with record unemployment and escalating political instability. All we ever learn of Will's father is that he's "happy" in jail, presumably because the discipline and deprivation have made him focus on spiritual values, and that he's disappointed when Will finally gives up music for a cushy job in market research. Too bad--tell it to the unemployed folks who lost their jobs and homes in the wake of an era of irresponsible speculation and greed.

To its credit, Fallen Angel offers some diverting and crisply played if insubstantial music, mostly by Boesky; it goes rather well with a beer or two in this cabaret presentation. (Don't expect to be able to hear the lyrics, though; they're mostly buried in the instrument-heavy mix, for which blame must be shared by musical director Steve Postell and sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.) And director Rob Greenberg, who previously staged the play at New York's La Mama ETC, has fashioned a few nice stage moments: the illusion of a rushing subway train created by flashing lights and clattering drums, a very lovely sequence in which Luke and Gretta sing under starlight while a silhouetted, rejected Will provides acoustic guitar accompaniment, and a touchingly played reconciliation between Will and his father, effectively portrayed by Michael J. Twaine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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