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