'BRIGHT LIGHTS' JUST LOW-'RENT'
By Donald Lyons
Works that deal with the ravages of expensive decadence are often accused of glamorizing what they pretend to condemn.
"Bright Lights, Big City" was a 1984 novel by Jay McInerney about the awful '80s. It featured Jamie, a brilliant young writer who'd come to New York to write great books. He is working at the New Yorker magazine by day, in the fact-checking department, and snorting coke by night, at various downtown dens. Jamie's wife, Amanda, is leaving him to become a supermodel.
These are real, everyday problems, right? Made into a mediocre movie with Michael J. Fox, the work is now the basis of a musical at the New York Theater Workshop.
What's wrong with the musical "Bright Lights Big City" is not, however, that it glamorizes drugs. Would that it did. Anything would be better than the vapid gyrating and name-dropping we have to watch.
In the first place, there is no actual story. Jamie parties a lot, loses his wife to supermodeldom and - prodded by various voices of conscience - vows to get his act together. These are not earth-shaking events, and they're given no artistic depth here despite explicit comparisons to Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." I think we're supposed (by McInerney and by the musical's creators) to see this as the tragic waste of a great writer. I don't think so.
Paul Scott Goodman, a Scottish composer-lyricist-performer, has written a rock score that consists (with a few quiet and sweet exceptions) of one drum-driven B-side after another. The band sits above the stage. Songs with titles such as "I Love Drugs," "I Hate the French" and "I Wanna Have Sex Tonight" keep promising more than they deliver; there's little wit in the lyrics or imagination in the music.
The worst idea of Goodman's was to include himself as an acoustic-guitar-strumming narrator. He's all over the place - a scruffy presence wearing jeans and platform sneakers and telling us in a thick burr that he, too, came to New York in 1984 and at once identified with Jamie's bedazzlement.
In addition, he's managed to belittle the more interesting elements of the book, turning the staff of the old, prestigious New Yorker magazine and its editor, William Shawn, into caricatures.
Director Michael Greif, who staged "Rent" in this space so electrically, has chosen to pump this slender material up as if it were "Rent Deux." Choral singers visibly wearing mikes again sock proper-name-laden songs with anger and energy.
But "Rent" didn't care about yesterday's hot spots, such as Odeon and Limelight. Its energy and anger came out of Jonathan Larson's passionate feel for contemporary life - as well as his musical savvy. Greif is here just pouring the fierce stylings that worked for "Rent" over a dry waffle.
Struggling to break out of all the sophomoric name-dropping and vapid glitz is a powerful, sincere and emotionally strong performance by Patrick Wilson as Jamie. Yuppily self-indulgent, Jamie is not an easy character to like, and Wilson seems at first to be just giving us a smooth, blond version of a smooth, blond guy.
But when Jamie finally gets to connect with his mother (a strong-voiced AnnMarie Milazzo), his brother (a fine and underused John Link Graney) and - most touchingly - a lonely lady from the Gotham office (a touching Kerry O'Malley), Wilson produces a desperation and a self-loathing and a lostness that take the production - for a few minutes - to another level entirely. We feel for the man.
Natascia Diaz is sweet as a nice academic girl, although her character's philosophical pretensions are absurd. Amanda, Jamie's snooty wife, is played with merely empty attitude by Napiera Daniele Groves, although the role is very sketchy.