For a good chunk of its 90-minute length, David Cale's autobiographical monologue looks exactly like your typical boom-generation gay coming-of-age story. Young David is the sensitive product of a dysfunctional marriage. His mom, Barbara, is a creative soul living the "wrong life." Dad Ron drinks away his waking hours, trying to self-medicate an adulthood spent under the thumb of his own thuggish, successful father. Along with little brother Simon, they live 30 miles and a world away from London, in the declining industrial city of Luton, known condescendingly as "the only northern town in the south" of England. David takes refuge in nursing sick animals, breeding finches (300 at a time!), and, yes, listening to Judy Garland albums. As a teen he makes the switch from Judy to Joni.
Then, at a remarkably late moment in the evening, something truly, horrifically bad happens. Things certainly get more interesting and less generic, but not that much actually changes. The tone is as dreamily elegiac as ever. The focus remains on the sensitive—if also rather dissociated—youth. In a way, the bad event seems as liberating as it is tragic, which would be a development worth confronting if it were in fact confronted. But Cale's story never widens out, much less fractures. His big trauma figures only as a stop along his peculiar way.
And perhaps that's how he wants us to understand it. There's a stick-figure quality to the show in Robert Falls's staging, like a picture book drawn by a child. Despite the presence of a sophisticated six-piece band, Cale's songs stay simple; in fact they come across as the same song given a dozen iterations. Cale himself projects an artless physicality, at once goofy and solemn, especially when he sticks out his hands to approximate flying. Maybe We're Only Alive is better understood as a reliving than a memoir. v