"As anyone can tell you, I'm not a very nice man." writer Charles Bukowski (played by Stephen Payne) confides to us at the top of 29th Street Rep's invigorating stage adaptation of several of the late writer's bizarre short stories, South of No North (Stories of the Buried Life). "I'm more interested in perverts than saints."
Luckily, so is 29th Street Rep, the envelope-pushing producers of such hits as Killer Joe and Avenue A. This Bukowski/29th Street Rep coupling is a match made in heaven, and a godsend for anyone interested in seeing Bukowski's characters leap from the page and come alive.
You can practically smell the characters before they even enter the stage. We all know the type: down and dirty men drawn to down-and-dirty women, and they all reek of alcohol. Here we are once again in underbelly of urban sprawl, 29th Street Rep style.
In nine short playlets, co-adapters and co-directors Leo Farley and Jonathan Powers have woven a patchwork of wicked men and women. As embodied by the wickedly gifted actor Payne, Bukowski is seen sitting at his cranky typewriter, peck-peck-pecking his troubled characters to life. With his rusty old voice and long, lanky hair, Payne so perfectly captures the deceased Bukowski that you assume the writer has risen from the dead for a month's sojourn Off-Broadway.
South of No North presents Bukowski as a kind of carnival barker and a character in his own stories. In "Guys," two friends--Payne/Bukowski as a guy named Henry Chinaski, and a fellow named Marty (Charles Willey)--get into an argument over Marty's new love, Jeannie (Elizabeth Elkins), who lives in the basement of their apartment building. Subduing Marty after a loud riff that brings their landlady to the door, Henry hightails it to the basement, beds Jeannie--and then loses her. Of course, all of the action is drenched in alcohol; the threadbare romanticism that peaks out from Henry's bloodshot eyes is all the more affecting for that reason.
The show scurries right along with a terrific little story ("You and Your Beer and How Great You Are") about a boxer (played by Thomas Wehrle) who breaks up with his current girlfriend (Pamela Ericson) and falls back into the arms of his ex (Paula Ewin). "Stop Staring at my Tits, Mister" is an hommage to the western, as two cowboys battle over Honeydew (Elkins), a 40-D-cup bombshell.
The centerpiece of Act One is a disturbing little story titled "Loneliness": Edna (Ewin) is a 37-year-old, single, obese woman who responds by phone to a lonely hearts advertisement left under the windshield wiper of her car by a man looking for the right overweight lady to love. In the best Bukowski vein, the guy turns out to be a heel. Bukowski mines some hysterically funny comedy in "Love for $17.50," about a man named Robert who falls obsessively in love with a beautiful, blonde store mannequin and proceeds to set up house with her, overlooking her stoic personality. (There is even a sex scene.)
The balance of South of No North, after a short intermission, consists of--among others--a skit about a trio of hit men and a wrestling match between Ernest Hemingway (Tim Corcoran) and Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski (Payne).
Bukowski's bizarre stories are nicely realized by the team of Farley and Powers. They should be commended for their efforts, and 29th Street Rep's actors once again prove their chops with such dark material. In addition to Payne, several others give stellar performances, particularly Corcoran and Ewin. In her company debut, Ericson is terrific in several roles, especially as the persnickety girlfriend in "You and Your Beer..."
Mark Symzak's set could have easily come right off of the street; it's delightfully lived in and dingy. The carnival music that sends us out of the theater after our visit with Bukowski and his brood perfectly reflects the visceral pleasures of the 29th Street Rep crew and their commitment to startle us.