at the Rudely Elegant Theater and Gallery

By Albert Williams

Eric Lane Barnes’s new musical about the psychic and sexual abuse of a 1970s adolescent doesn’t work as a show, but I wish more shows didn’t work this powerfully. Juxtaposing campy commentary on feel-good 70s entertainment (The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, etc) with grim memories of a real-life dysfunctional family, Death and Pancakes packs a punch whose force derives from the commitment of its author and performers; the punch doesn’t always land where it’s aimed–mainly because its targets aren’t well enough identified–but when it does hit home it’s a knockout.

Guy (Russell Alan Rowe) is a 32-year-old gay songwriter who discovers one night that his telephone is a time machine. Drowsy and relaxed after a phone-sex session, he idly dials his family’s old number–and makes contact with himself 20 years ago (young Guy is played with deep feeling and a beautiful tenor by Keith Anderson). The experiment leads to grim flashbacks from Guy’s childhood: the sudden death of his father (played by Barnes, who’s also the offstage keyboardist, under the stage name Eddie Briscoe); a series of classroom embarrassments (Guy’s talent for writing stories brings him more trouble than acclaim); a war-zone relationship with his widowed mother (Kim Docter), who in a string of careless insults takes out her loneliness and frustration on her kid; and an even worse situation with his 15-year-old brother Brad, who likes to call his kid brother a cocksucker–and likes to prove it by coaxing/forcing Guy into oral sex in the basement.

Brad is played by a woman, Tina Gluschenko, and her performance sets the strange, inconsistent, and troubling tone of the evening. Lanky and boyish, Gluschenko uses her innate softness and breathy alto voice to convey the insecurities that Brad, lacking a father at a critical time in his life, hides behind a sullen, tough-guy demeanor. The result is a surprisingly convincing portrayal, but Gluschenko’s gender also creates an element of falseness–asserting that she’s an actress and this is a show–that permeates the whole production under Betsy Freytag’s direction. It’s revealed most clearly in a very funny number, “These Three Chords,” in which the daydreaming Guy makes believe his brother has become a sister–not just any sister but a singing nun whose repertoire epitomizes a 70s kid’s snobbery about “old-fashioned” 60s protest songs. But it also informs Barnes’s portrayal of the mother as a Carol Burnett Show stereotype, who simpers slurs such as “Children are like pancakes–you ought to be able to throw the first two away” before letting loose with a ballsy ballad about feeling insignificant next to the perfection of TV moms; of grown-up Guy as a song-and-dance man who warbles a vaudeville song about the painful effects of insulting words on a child’s psyche (“First you sprain his heart, then kick away the crutches”); and of course of the premise that Guy makes phone contact with himself as a child. “What’s the world like?” young Guy asks grown-up Guy. “Loud, dirty, and Republican,” grown-up Guy replies. “But on the plus side, Susan Dey is in a new series.”

The influence of TV hangs heavy over Death and Pancakes. The show’s fundamental premise is that real life isn’t like The Partridge Family, whose star David Cassidy is the role-model blow-dried songwriter Guy adores and emulates. Yet Barnes seems intent on disproving his own premise, expressing painful reality in frivolous sitcom and variety-show accents and shifting scenes and moods as abruptly as if he were switching channels. A very talented songwriter, Barnes is on less solid ground as a playwright; his script is written from the heart but without much theatrical technique. This gives the evening an unsatisfactory, unresolved feel. But its individual moments (including some of Barnes’s beautiful light-pop songs) and its fundamental integrity make Death and Pancakes far more moving than many a more secure show.