Mojo FEBRUARY 2016 - by Paul Trynka


Lazarus, Theater Workshop, New York

"We're going to do a play based on your past." Paul Trynka watches a fascinating but uneven new play by David Bowie and Enda Walsh.

Thomas Newton is a mess. He sprawls on a blank floor, framed by blank walls which feature only a spacious refrigerator which holds a plentiful supply of drink and, on his far left, a vinyl player flanked by a triptych of David Bowie albums: Scary Monsters, Young Americans and Aladdin Sane. The fallen man - or rather, fallen alien - remains immobile, bathed in fluorescent glare as an expectant audience shuffle to their seats in the two-hundred-capacity theatre in the East Village. There's a sense of electricity in the air, exemplified by a tall video-screen that will soon host a sequence of random images, newsreels, or even participants in the play. Behind, imprisoned by a glass screen like Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs, are the seven musicians, headed by keyboardist and The Next Day collaborator Henry Hey.

Lazarus, written by Enda Walsh and Bowie, directed by Ivo van Hove is, in essence, a stripped-down sequel to the celebrated The Man Who Fell To Earth film, with the action confined to Thomas Newton's stark apartment. Newton anaesthetises himself with drink, greeting blankly a stream of visitors, notably personal assistant Elly, aka Cristin Milioti, who exudes a kooky eroticism to which he's largely indifferent, and the curly-locked, blonde "Girl", Sophia Anne Caruso, who seems a figment of Newton's imagination, his homesickness for wife and daughter made flesh. Or maybe, Newton gradually realises, she's his ticket out of here.

Michael C. Hall, best known as titular villain of Dexter, is the Newton figure and therefore the play's linchpin. Unsurprisingly, Hall has confessed his giddying fear at the prospect of reinterpreting beloved Bowie so in front of their vaunted creator. In the even he's pretty much superb, both on the unfamiliar material - including the fantastic Lazarus, which veers from the simple Space Oddity-ish verse to lusciously-crafted, almost Bacharach chord sequences - and songs like No Game or Love Is Lost, which highlight t band's supernatural ability at summoning up churning, dense soundscapes without drowning out the dialogue. (Incidentally, there is no material from Bowie's abandoned soundtrack for the original movie).

Hall plays Newton as both impossibly old, and as a childish ingénue - shifts alway echoed by the music. The lost child Newton watches Caruso tape a rocket out on the floor, and wonders whether it will enable his longed-for escape. But when sinister intruder Valentine - convincingly depicted by Michael Esper, who also sings a scintillating Dirty Boys - inveigles his way into his apartment, Newton unleashes his inner rage with Killing A Little Time, a turbulent, claustrophobic epic, its creepy minor-key guitar riff underpinning a torrent of lyrics: "I'm the choking man, the fading man, I'm the broken man." It's absolutely gripping, a superb juxtaposition of music, theatre and technology that stands as a new high-watermark of Bowie's cross-media achievements.

Then, inexplicably, it's followed by a moment of pure bathos as Caruso belts out Life On Mars. Suddenly this enigmatic messenger from the unconscious turns out to have popped over from Broadway - with all the obligatory over-emoting. It epitomises the central problem of this fascinating but uneven show; the dense, fractured songs drive the narrative forward, but the anthems - All The Young Dudes, Absolute Beginners - feel forced, and bring the performance crashing down to earth (this could change, of course, as a play often does during the previews). Yet before long there's another terrific new song, When I Met You, in which Newton and a Teenage Girl trade lines in a crescendo that culminates in Caruso's murder - or sacrifice - by the alien, a shocking denouement handled in visionary fashion by van Hove.

Finally, before Caruso's "Girl" takes her leave to let Newton escape, sprawled Lodger-like on his imaginary rocket, we hear an unmistakeable counter-melody before "Heroes" is played as a closing duet between Hall and Caruso. Never have I been more disappointed to hear a wonderful song. We'd expect a Queen show to close with We Are The Champions, but demand more from David Bowie.

At its core, Lazarus taps deep into the Bowie essence, or the Bowie persona (if there is any demarcation between the two): loneliness, the nature of Outsiderness, the yearning for transcendence. At its best, it is staggeringly beautiful - when Newton wrestles wit h his losses or when Alan Cumming, a disembodied, ghostly father figure projected on the screen, listens patiently while Caruso tries to work out her own identity. Frequently profound, if intermittently predictable, Lazarus shows that, under the skin, we are all aliens. But we can't all be heroes.