Theatre review

Inside David Bowie’s Weirdly Brilliant Off-Broadway Masterpiece

The Daily Beast

December 8, 2015

When rock gods land on the New York stage, they tend to do so loudly and on Broadway, as with Sting’s stirring opus, The Last Ship.

But David Bowie: well, obviously, he’s going to go for something smaller and cooler than the clotted, touristy streets around Times Square.

Perhaps even Broadway theaters who would normally leap at a big name like his might also balk at—even with Bowie’s name behind it—the surreal storyline of Lazarus, Bowie’s project with playwright Enda Walsh, which has just opened at New York’s Theatre Workshop in the East Village.

But however left-field the story-frame, and however off-Broadway this is (and not just geographically), Lazarus is inevitably one of the hottest tickets of the theatre season—Bowie’s name ensures that.

On Monday the New York Theatre Workshop announced it was extending performances through January 20.

If you are a Bowie fan you will want to see it, for the sheer panoply of his songs that feature in it. It includes four new Bowie songs: ‘Lazarus,’ ‘No Plan,’ ‘Killing A Little Time,’ and ‘When I Met You.’ (Despite repeated requests, the production would not send The Daily Beast the complete songlist of the show.)

Directed by the acclaimed, innovative director Ivo van Hove and designed and lit with truly stunning ingenuity by Jan Versweyveld, Lazarus is inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis—which was itself made into a 1976 film, directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Bowie as the humanoid alien Thomas Newton.

Presumably the stage show takes up where the film left off, with Newton—here played by Michael C. Hall—an alcoholic mess living in a spiffing New York apartment, and paranoid about intrusions from the outside world.

As we the audience file in, Hall lies motionless on the stage, and—as the action begins—he is joined by Cristin Milioti’s Elly, who has become his assistant. She herself is in a thorny relationship with her partner, especially as her connection to Newton deepens.

This deepening connection leads Elly to try to look like the partner Newton has lost (who is presumably—I may be wrong—the alien wife he has left behind, and who dies in the movie).

Her image flashes up on a big screen, smiling warmly. Elly dyes her hair blue and dresses like her, while a spirit child somehow stuck between living and death (Sophia Anne Caruso) also apes Newton’s lost love. This girl wants both freedom from her plight, and to help Newton to return to Mars—later we see Alan Cumming, in a creepy videotaped confessional, play her killer, or would-be killer.

The audience at a weekend press night, puzzled as we may have been by various lost plot coordinates, were also entranced. A live band was set up on a level above and behind the stage, behind a see-through screen, played Bowie’s songs, as the story meandered this way and that in and out of recognizable reality.

The evening’s anchor, oddly, is not Newton. A couple (played by Nicholas Christopher and Lynn Craig) in rapturous love, whom we spot careening down streets and in nightclubs, find their horny, joyous love threatened by the figure of Valentine (Michael Esper), dressed in black and determined to kill and snuff out—literally if necessary—the love around him.

Valentine also seems oddly attracted to the man in that relationship on stage (in one pivotal scene it looks like he is also orgasming over him), and also to Newton.

Lazarus contains its own surreal logic, but at its heart it seems to be about love and connection, and the forces that can make or violently break such connections.

Nicholas Christopher, who plays one half of the loving couple, posted a picture to Instagram recently, reading “Explanation Kills Art.” This was the answer, he wrote, when people asked what Lazarus was about.

This typically sniffy rejoinder from an artist to us mere dolts in the audience may be true, but the Lazarus gang—who know the piece more intimately than we, having rehearsed it and presumably asked its creators for their characters’ motivations and the like—might also spare a thought for the audience who must sit for two hours, without intermission, to make sense of an obliquely framed theatrical experience.

As it turns out, this was no pain at all for this viewer (and Bowie music appreciator, if not fanatic).

Lazarus isn’t completely lost to its creators’ artistic vanities and eccentricities. Milioti singing ‘Changes’ is a special moment, her body wracked with anger towards her partner and the world, until she takes a running leap at Newton lying on his bed, literally running astride his body.

If Lazarus’ story isn’t always clear, its recurring themes—sexuality, loneliness, death, connection, and disconnection—are reasserted in the text and music; indeed, the text is somewhat subservient to the music.

The spoken word feels more wooden and harder to hear and cling to, than the sung one—and both are blown utterly out of the water by the brilliant video projections and lighting of the show, which variously evoke teeming New York streets, nightclubs, and Newton’s apartment—its own strange physical and psychological universe.

In some sense, this is Bowie’s Mamma Mia!; the artiest form of the jukebox musical—far from cheesy, but any true Bowie-phile will be tapping their feet as much as scratching their head.

Esper as the goodness-deadening presence of Valentine lends the piece dramatic cohesion, with a set-piece that stunningly renders the theater bathed all in black, after a soliloquy in which he has repeated the male lover’s memory of first meeting his partner back at him and us, with sneering disavowal masking its own mysterious hurt.

The staging and lighting of these pieces are works of art themselves: your eye becomes fixed on details like the little rocket painted on the see-through screen separating stage and band, a circle labeled Mars beside it, and the smeared handprints of the actors who have thrown themselves at the screen at different points.

If we may not be clear of the story and the reality and fantasy of the material, the players of Lazarus at least portray the emotional truth of their roles clearly, right up to Caruso—who skillfully manages to sketch out a rocket on the stage using tape as the action pulsates around her—singing ‘Life on Mars’ with a flutey fearlessness.

That isn’t part of the piece’s stunning finale, which The Daily Beast will not ruin here, but the final moments again prize what we see over any narrative twist or conclusion, clearly stated as they appear to be. (And if you need real help with the play’s message, look at its title because Lazarus and Newton are close kin.)

If David Bowie has set out to confound downtown theatre-goers, he and his collaborators have made that confusion so visually rich it may not matter to you that the piece’s sense is far from conventional. By the end, my eyes were dancing.