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A CurtainUp Review
South of No North (Stories of the Buried Life)
Love's a fairy tale for idiots. ---Charles Bukowski

Stephen Payne
Stephen Payne
(Photo: Greg Alexander)D
It's a match made in heaven, really. A particularly hellish corner of heaven, perhaps, but heaven nonetheless. 29th Street Rep is a theater company that has an affinity for plays that are, in Elyse Sommer's words, "unremittingly grim," not to mention grimy. (Reviews of some of 29th Street's shows are linked below.) It now ventures outside the theatrical literature to embrace the writing of Charles Bukowski, adapting this collection of his short stories, South of No North, for the stage. It's hard to imagine a writer with a more sympatico sensibility. 
As Bukowski (Stephen Payne) explains, he is not intrigued by the clean-cut, buttoned-up (or down) America, but rather by its underbelly: flop house denizens, alcoholics, side show shills, prostitutes and hit men. There's no such thing as love in their street wisdom, and no hope either. It's his decidedly unpretty world -- his own pock-marked face deprives him of any pretense of escaping it -- and he methodically makes us feel strangely welcome in it. 

There are nine stories here, and they present a most suitable introduction to the recurring themes in Bukowski's work. (We might call them "Losers, their Liquor and their Ladies.") But what makes this endeavor most interesting is not so much the content of the stories (we quickly figure out Bukowski spends a lot of time banging on the same drums) as the way Messrs. Farley and Powers have woven them together into a play about the writer and, even more impressively, the way he writes. 

Payne, an actor we enjoyed when he played the "hobbled inebriate," Engstrand, in Ibsen's Ghosts (review linked below), is even better here. It probably comes as no surprise to most that Bukowski wrote in an alcohol-induced blur. But while Payne's cranky, gravel-voiced portrayal shows every sign of the beer and whiskey that were Bukowski's seemingly constant companions, the condition never overtakes the character (as indeed it obviously did not in real life); his true passions are shown to be neither the booze nor the women he half-heartedly beds, but his writing and the music that flows from his radio. Unlike the jazz preferred by the Beat writers with whom he is often (and erroneously) lumped, Bukowski was romanced by classical music. 

Bukowski's character quickly assumes the voice of his autobiographical alter ego, Henry Chinaski. In the opening story, "Guts," the stage is set for the gritty realities that underpin what follows: sharing drinks and women with his skid row neighbor, Marty (Charles Willey), under the looming presence of the landlady (Pamela Ericson). Bukowski/Chinaski floats in and out of his stories, sometimes sitting down at his typewriter to record what he has seen and heard, other times lurking at the fringe scribbling in his ever-ready notebook and still other times mouthing words with the other characters, repeating them or using them, brilliantly, as segues into the next story. 

Thus evolves "You and Your Beer and How Great You Are," a story of a boxer, Jack (Thomas Wehrle) and his women (Ericson, again, Paula Ewin and another on the telephone). It's a vivid portrayal of not only what passes for romance in this world, but also the prevailing lack of aspiration that encourages so much failure. "I think you'd be happier if I came in here a loser," Jack says after his momentum is shattered by his reciprocally-disinterested girlfriend. Henry, at his typewriter, absorbs and types. 

Location changes but temperaments remain in "Stop Staring at My Tits, Mister," with Big Bart (Tim Corcoran) joining The Kid (Wehrle) and his buxom girl Honeydew (Elizabeth Elkins) in a covered wagon. The circumstances of following up on a single's ad permits a meditation on the nature of "Loneliness," featuring Ewin and Willey (" A sexual orgy is the loneliest place in the world."), followed by a rather remarkable iteration of this theme, blended with a crude but telling (and surprising) look at its devolution into thoroughly impersonal sex and accompanying abuse ("Love for $17.50"). 

The second act opens with one of the best stories, "The Devil Was Hot," Bukowski's look at something of a Faustian bargain set in a side show. (Wehrle as the Devil and Corcoran as the Barker are delicious.) The momentum languishes thereafter, and by the time the last story, "Class," which sets Hemingway (Corcoran) in a boxing match, is told, it seems a little bit of editing would have left the evening with a lot more punch. 

The supporting cast, which is called on to serve as many as seven of the stories, performs admirably. Wehrle, aided by sheer quantity as well as luck of juicy assignment, is the most memorable. Set designer Mark Symzak warrants special commendation for finding a way to accommodate so much story in so little space. 

Dramatizing the writing of someone whose books have resonated so much for his audiences is not an easy task. It would be hard to suggest that seeing this collection of stories onstage has the same impact as reading the source. (For those interested, access to it is linked below.) And, as would be expected, some of the stories are more stageworthy than others, and thus more successfully transformed into the theatrical medium. The Co-Director/Adaptors seem to recognize this, and wisely have found their own purpose. Judging this work as an introduction to Bukowski, it's certainly a success; and comparing it to other attempts at dramatizing literary biography (most commonly achieved via the one man show), it's a winner. And since Bukowski's work is so autobiographical anyway, that's saying quite a lot. 

CurtainUp's review of Pig 
CurtainUp's review of Killer Joe 
CurtainUp's review of Bobby Supreme 
CurtainUp's review of Avenue A 
CurtainUp's review of Ghosts 
SOUTH OF NO NORTH (Stories of the Buried Life)
by Charles Bukowski 
Adapted and directed by Leo Farley and Jonathan Powers

with Stephen Payne, Tim Corcoran, Paula Ewin, Elizabeth Elkins, Thomas Wehrle, Pamela Ericson and Charles Willey
Set Design: Mark Symzak
Lighting Design: Stewart Wagner
Sound Design: Gerard Drazba
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes with one intermission
29th Street Rep Website: http://www.29thstreetrep.com29th Street Rep, 212 West 29th Street (7/8 Avs.) (212) 465-0575
Opened March 3, 2000 Closes March 26, 2000 
And back for another run September 22, 2000
Reviewed by Les Gutman 3/4/2000 based on a 2/28/2000 performance

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