How to Be a
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Erik Jensen as Lester Bangs in How to Be a Rock Critic
Photo by Craig Schwartz
The lesson to be learned here is not how to be a rock critic but how to be a human being, experiencing instead of describing, taking action instead of observing. When the theatermakers are teaching this lesson, this piece is at its finest. When the theatermakers are trying to make theater, even they must still learn a few things.
This world premiere solo show is written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Blank and performed by Jensen, “based on the writing of Lester Bangs.” He, of course, is widely considered to have been not merely a rock critic but the rock critic, the best of a breed.
In his seedy, slovenly room, Bangs plays vinyl records for us. He drinks copiously of Romilar cough syrup, vodka, and beer, while he pops prescription pills (probably not his prescriptions) and LSD (Bangs died, age 33, of an “accidental” drug overdose). Tonight, he dances like someone who has been drinking and dropping acid. And he speaks like no one since Alexander Pope.
“Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock ’n’ roll bands for some kind of model for a better society. I guess it’s just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since,” Bangs is often quoted as saying—a quote, among many others, that makes its way into this theatricalized evening in his life.
Bangs reflects on his upbringing (by a Jehovah’s Witness–practicing mother and an absentee father), on his passion for writing and for writing rock criticism (which he had fully engaged in since age 12), and on his observations and experiences (keyed to the 1960s and ’70s). Blank and Jensen weave the music of Bangs’s teen and young adult years into the text and into the show’s soundscape, along with the blissful sound of a Smith Corona typewriter.
Bangs invites the audience into his home, offers us magazines and beers, and allows us to penetrate his self-reflection. What he shows us, in addition to his vast knowledge of rock, is his constant failure to participate in life, instead reviewing it. A woman is horribly abused, a child is frighteningly mistreated, and all he can do is objectively write about it. His confessions shame his audience, evoking our guilt for times past when we, too, failed to speak up, rescue, change an outcome.
Jensen’s performance is a knockout. Every cell of his body is throbbing with this character. At no time does he seem to “act,” though Bangs knows there’s an audience in the room and repeatedly interacts with us. Blank’s direction lets Jensen slip and slide across the album-strewn premises. Blank lets him hydrate via all those bottles (though that last beer sure foams up out of the can). The pain evoked at so many turns is wide and deep, as Bangs recalls his father’s death, his own desperation for a girlfriend, his disappointment in rock gods.
But the character continually breaks up his revelations over the 80 minutes of the show to remind us he’s searching among his disorganized piles of vinyl for the one, true, great album in rock history. This takes the audience out of the moment, out of another chance to experience Bangs’s pain and ponder his ideas and use of language. And that’s another opportunity squandered.
June 18, 2015
17–28. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free parking underneath City
Hall, immediately south of the theater. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30
pm. $30. (213) 628-2772.
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