The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain, a Musical Novel for the Stage

Jeffrey Dorchen

at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, through March 25

Jeffrey Dorchen’s wicked monologue The Life and Times of Jewboy Cain is one bizarre ride–a fanciful, dark, perversely funny, strangely perspicuous, at times tasteless, vividly entertaining, beautifully paced tequila-influenced journey through the life of an obscure folksinger as told directly to the audience, to friends who call him on the phone, and to a supposed historian. The piece begins with Cain, a singer-raconteur, waiting for the arrival of someone he believes to be Smithsonian music historian Alan Lomax, but who is actually coming to Cain’s apartment for something more urgent than an interview.

As we enter the Lunar Cabaret, the audience chairs don’t face the stage but are arranged against one side wall and facing the other. Thus some of the audience are actually seated onstage. Dorchen’s performing area includes the other half of the stage and the length of the adjoining wall–so the audience enters Cain’s world quite literally. We first pass a crudely painted mountain backdrop: Cain’s point of illumination, where he drops his persona, reads Hebrew prayers, and recites from the Tao-te Ching, transcending his present and his past. At the center is Cain’s messy studio apartment, with a frayed rug, a cupboard, and easy chairs–his present and an illustration of his mind. And on the far left is the concert stage, where Cain relives his past.

Jewboy Cain is a bitter, brilliant, fascinating character full of contradictions. He seems to love women, but allows that all five of his former girlfriends are now in lesbian relationships. No explanations are provided. Cain makes a halfhearted admission to his guest that he’s had male lovers, then quickly says that he won’t make a pass at his guest because he isn’t interested in virgins. His theories run the gamut, though a constant theme is his own role as an outsider–from his destiny as a maverick Jew bound to form a new movement to his relationships with lovers to his favorite books (among them Moby-Dick and the Book of Job). He explains the connections between Renaissance music and 60s love songs, the uses of metaphor and symbol, Antioch College and the Ohio town of Antioch (and why he lived there), the connections between Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, between the life of Jesus and his own life.

Yet Cain is uneasy–in his own words, “a tree without roots” or “a salad that wants to be a tree.” He reenacts an eventful concert in which he opened for Joan Armatrading–the concert that might have put him on the map as a musician. During the concert he sang a song in which he used the word “nigger” often, naively and pompously thinking that it’s a word “we should all be able to share.” Not surprisingly, he received a chilly reception from the audience. He attempted to redeem himself with another song, but it was so overtly sexist that it effectively finished his career. Now he says he’s rethinking things, “and hasn’t got out of it yet…” From the beginning of the show he seems on the verge of an epiphany, but it never quite materializes for him, his guest, or the audience.

Cain embodies a sense of tragedy that begs for examination but wanders unmoored. Illumination eludes him, obscured by his stubborn intelligence, charming cynicism, and musical gifts–which all conspire to keep him buoyant despite the harsh and abrupt realities of his life. We’re eavesdropping on a person who, as he says, is in the process of rethinking things but who hasn’t emerged from his own haze of intellectual conceits. This makes his unfolding story–part autobiography, part philosophy class, part concert, and part music lesson–weirdly fascinating as well as problematic. His mind turns this way and that, and he generously lets us in on his thoughts even when his thinking is wrongheaded, yet he seems mired in his own maze. Dorchen’s imaginative, metaphorical text provides a psychic blueprint of his persona, but it doesn’t resolve the issues the writer raises.

What separates a good performer from a great one is often ineffable. I’ve seen performers who’ve cultivated a slick delivery and have a well-edited text who can’t hold a candle to Dorchen. He has a gift–his wit, intelligence, and passion are compelling. Whether moving, telling stories, or playing music, he’s wholly original, with a self-assured, hardboiled believability. Even the most mundane bits of business–pouring what he calls a “tequila sensitive” for his guest, unfolding a blanket–seem drenched in meaning. This is a great show despite its structural or philosophical difficulties–and it will no doubt continue to change, as it has already since its opening at Link’s Hall several weeks ago: Dorchen’s pacing and concentration are now tight as a drum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Phil Cantor.