Monday, May 9, 2011

Her Name Is Carson

Vega as McCullers (photo by Sandra Coudert)

Carson McCullers Talks About Love
Written and performed by Suzanne Vega
Music by Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik
Directed by Kay Matschullat

Performances through June 4, 2011
Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place

In her concert performances, singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega tells amusingly deadpan tales that are as illuminating as the direct, durable songs she sings in her conversational voice. Those tough-as-nails songs, often written from the point of view of a detached narrator, would seem to make her the ideal interpreter of the life of Southern author Carson McCullers, best known for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding and Reflections in a Golden Eye. But the resulting Carson McCullers Talks About Love is an awkward hybrid (part nightclub act, part concert, part solo performance piece, part musical) which never coalesces into a uniform and satisfying whole.

Vega begins the show by recounting how she “discovered” McCullers by reading a story of hers at age 17 and assuming “Carson” was a man until she saw the grim female face on the cover of one of her books. This, of course, made her want to know more about the sad-looking woman who wrote uncompromising tragicomic stories about her characters’ desperate emotional struggles. Following this intro, Vega puts on a wig, picks up a drink and a cigarette and acts as McCullers for the next 80 minutes.

Carson McCullers Talks About Love, comprising anecdotes about the renowned author and a dozen songs with music by Vega and Duncan Sheik and Vega’s own alternating biting and hackneyed lyrics, attempts to paint a well-rounded portrait of the artist as a bisexual alcoholic. And there are times when Vega’s vaguely Southern drawl and atmospheric blues or torch songs like “Song of Annemarie” and “Harper Lee” give a clear snapshot of McCullers’ complicated relationships with both men and women, but those moments are fleeting.

More often, songs like “Me of We” and “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” fade completely after they’re heard, despite referencing McCullers’ own writings in the lyrics. And why director Kay Matschullat thought it clever to have Vega step out of character to banter with onstage pianist Joe Iconis, whose interjections become more annoying as the play continues, is baffling. More successful are guitarist Andy Stack’s hard-edged riffs that become the voice of McCullers’ husband Reeves during several “conversations.”

Vega’s own musical sketches of loners and survivors have always carried a sardonic edge, which has been blunted in her first theatrical foray. In attempting to use her own voice as her heroine’s equally powerful one, Vega seems overwhelmed for the first time onstage, and the result is a show will probably dissatisfy fans of both of these talented women.

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