Peter Friedman and Bobby Steggert in
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island
(© Carol Rosegg)
Peter Friedman and Bobby Steggert in
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island
(© Carol Rosegg)
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, the new musical at the Vineyard Theatre, has a great deal going for it: Pictorial novelist Ben Katchor's offbeat text and imagery (projected large and in lush color), Mark Mulcahy's congenial indie-rock score, and an absolutely superb seven-actor ensemble. But in the end, one is still left wanting more, such as a few more twists to the faux-ingenuous plot or a bit more gravitas to the unflaggingly whimsical proceedings.

World-famous electrolysist Dr. Rushower (twinkly Peter Friedman) and his American lit grad-student daughter GinGin (winsome Jody Flader) occupy a posh Manhattan penthouse, and the droppings from their exuberant dinners occasionally splatter a hapless passerby. It's the doctor's practice, in such instances, to have his butler (the unflappable Tom Riis Farrell) usher the victim up for an apology and what may well be the start of an intense fellowship. Immanuel Lubang (Bobby Steggert), a young man with a passion for the found poetry of outmoded consumer-appliance manuals, is delighted to be so anointed, even though GinGin warns him that the warm welcome afforded him is nothing special.

Indeed, we've already seen her exposed, like a fairytale princess, to an endless parade of unsuitable suitors put forward by her doting father, a model of American can-doism. We've also seen GinGin captivated, a few innocuous sentences at a time, by a random caller named Samson (played by Matt Pearson, lolling in an elevated niche, with a nice leonine languor).

Dr. Rushower is a committed ameliorist, the founder of an institute that has tackled such knotty social ills as the little plastic stickers applied to produce. His latest bete noire is the plight of the Kayrol Islanders, who, for paltry pay doled out in the form of date nut leaves, perform the "back-breaking" task of hoisting tiny lead slugs, one per over-developed shoulder, some 20 feet from the cargo ship they arrive in to the assembly line where they lend "an impression of heft and worth" to an infinite array of short-lived consumer goods: phones, electric toothbrushes, and the like. The good doctor rightly distrusts the contention made by George Klatter, a patient of his afflicted with "connective eyebrow hair" (played by the devilish Stephen Lee Anderson, whom by rights we should see more of), that the workers don't mind their life of pointless toil, being "not like you and I."

Regardless, the very thought of their much-publicized plight flattens GinGin, who takes to her bed, loath to touch a single such device (with grievous effect on her personal hygiene). As a psychiatrist brought in for a consultation, Will Swenson temporarily hijacks the show, performing fey shamanic ministrations to a samba beat: While he predicts that Gin Gin will get over her malaise by her mid-thirties, Rushower has a better idea: Send her off with the go-getting Lubang to Kayrol, where together they might elevate the workers' humdrum lives with an infusion of ennobling literature -- and with any luck, bonding romantically in the process.

Fate has other plans, naturally, and Steggert is a treat to watch as a would-be missionary -- not to mention lover -- marginalized into near-instant obsolescence. Once GinGin gets a taste of Kayrol Cola (described by Klatter as "dirty water and codeine"), she's a goner. Also, guess who awaits her on-island, exhibiting uncanny powers of voice recognition yet (apparently) none of the sexual diminishment reported to plague this hotbed of industrial pollution?

What little tension has been introduced in this mild, bemused tale quickly dissipates once the initially intriguing conceits have been played out -- or, in the case of the instruction-manual "poetry," overplayed. A take-home message about exploited Third World workers may be too much to ask of such a lighthearted fable. Still, the implicit suggestion "Don't worry, they're happy" seems irresponsibly facile. Then again, the fact that misgivings about this mostly enchanting experience linger on, unsettling in their ambiguity, may just be the creators' crowning coup.