Having now seen Lazarus and read the script and revisited The Man Who Fell To Earth, I can confidently report that David Bowie has landed on East Fourth Street with a work of blistering nihilism, no small sum of inscrutable foolishness and a fistful of the most brilliant contemporary rock songs you will hear anywhere.
I can also say with some certainty that director Ivo van Hove — the Belgian-born director who seems to be falling to Earth’s theaters everywhere at once these days — has a rich imagination ideal for this wild ride, more so than in his works with modern classics such as his current Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. Lazarus, which opened Monday at the New York Theatre Workshop, bespeaks a remarkable collaboration among three sure-footed artists (including playwright Enda Walsh, best known for adapting Once, which ran in this same theater before moving uptown to Broadway).
Bowie himself has stepped behind the spotlight for Lazarus. His character, the alien Thomas Newton, is played by Michael C. Hall, the Dexter star who recently donned glitter and wig to step into the kick-ass boots of Hedwig. Here, it may be some decades after the action of Nicolas Roeg’s film, based on the Walter Tevis novel (or we may also simply be more tuned to the 1963 book than the 1976 movie). The dissolute Newton, having ages ago failed in his mission to save his planet, is living wealthily but squalidly on gin, Lucky Charms and Twinkies, aided by the very frustrated Elly (wispy Once star Cristin Milioti) and unable to replace the long gone, or long distant Mary-Lou. (We’ve seen her, referenced in the cacophonic video mashup that opens the show, via Ricky Nelson’s song.) His friend Michael (Charlie Pollock) has visited after a long absence, and is appalled. “Do you see Mary-Lou, ever?” he asks. “Only in my head,” Newton replies. After Michael leaves, Newton sings the title song:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen…
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
Elly’s husband Zach (Bobby Moreno) grows increasingly suspicious of her relationship to Thomas, and for good reason — especially after she sums up the impossible-to-unravel goings on with the show’s best-known song, “Ch-Ch-Changes.”
More intriguing is the arrival of Girl, a child-woman (the haunting Sophia Anne Caruso) who seems to know all of Thomas’s secrets: “You had a daughter my age. Your wife would stay at home and you and your daughter used t’ walk together…You were sent here from another planet and you never got back home to your family. You got real rich – started a bunch of companies. You tried to leave once before – and people did experiments on you and they hurt you really bad – turned you crazy – and you wouldn’t prove what you were to them – and they stopped you leaving…” Girl gets to sing the show’s other marquee number, “Life On Mars.” For Hall, Milioti and Caruso’s — especially Caruso’s — voices alone, perfectly matched to the Bowie songs, with their cunning acid lyrics and urgent, throbbing melodies, the show is a total mind-blower.
Van Hove and choreographer Annie-B Parson — along with designers Jan Versweyveld (sets and lighting) and An D’Huys (costumes), Tal Yarden (video); Brian Ronan (sound) and musical director Henry Hey — have conspired brilliantly to bring this world — of missed, not to say shattered connections, of inner and outer space, of longing and brutal rejection — electrifyingly to life. The stage is minimalistically bare but for a bed and a refrigerator and not much more. Behind it, however, are a pair of broad windows into what resembles a recording studio, where the musicians back the songs; the two windows are separated by a screen on which the video brings us to the various locations.
But it’s not any video image that stayed with me. It’s the masking-taped outline of a rocket ship placed on the floor by Caruso’s Girl, pointing to Mars, where life may exist or end or simply disappear in a vapor trail of memory.