Getting Into Heaven
As a result of last week’s landmark Supreme Court decision on gay rights, there’s been talk about dignity being conferred upon lesbians and gays. It’s a heartening prospect, but dignity isn’t necessarily an attribute that’s conferred externally, as Polly Draper’s Getting Into Heaven illustrates at some length. Of course, there is such a thing as individuals behaving with dignity, but that doesn’t much happen where this agitated production is concerned.
There’s little dignity on display in this drama about lesbian and bisexual love and parenting. This is not to say that the focal figures of the play should be thoroughly dignified, which would make for a dull work. But there’s not much at all to respect about a play wherein the first act is curiously uninvolving and the second act contains a series of ludicrous developments that seem part of a weird, “can you top this?” urge. Furthermore, these eye-popping events take place on a set by Junghyun Georgia Lee that features not much more than a bed, a television facing upstage, and seven monitors facing the audience that provide no discernible information at all.
Cat Venita (Draper), a rock star addressing a downturn in her career, and her longtime lover Rose (Gretchen Egolf), a drummer, have been raising a son, Danny (Cooper Pillot), whose natural father is the fledgling deejay Jed (James Badge Dale). While serving as the sperm provider of a second child whom Cat will bear, Jed continues to suffer unrequited hots for Rose. He and she were once an item, while Jed’s late, trumpet-playing, older brother Cal was a former lover of Cat. The fellows’ very English mother, Crystal (Barbara eda-Young with a streak of red dye in her long brown hair) is still in all their lives — that is, when she can pull herself away from the telephone on which she’s been conducting an impassioned, one-sided love affair with an anonymous, silent caller.
The heavily-tattooed Cat, trying to find a balance between being a “badass rock star” and “a good mother,” begins to come undone as bad things happen to Danny while Rose and Jed toy with the idea of rekindling their romance. It’s a challenge for Cat to remain drug-free, as she has been for 15 years, when unbelievable episodes begin to unfold. The intelligent Rose quits Cat and returns to Jed although her attraction to him is inexplicable, no matter how much she may be disoriented by mitigating factors. Jed, so dim that he can only communicate through hip-hop slang, becomes a Grammy-winning rap artist. Cat gives birth to baby Lily but can’t bond with her. Crystal — whose name perhaps is meant to explain her New Age attitude — finally tells Jed who his father is. He turns out to be an actual rock ‘n’ roll icon whose identity won’t be revealed here. (Hint: Cass Elliott whispers it in her recording of “I Call Your Name.”)
Draper seems to take all of this seriously, but no one else will. Nor are many patrons likely to nod in happy assent when they learn who has been on the horn to Crystal, giving “email@example.com” as an e-mail address. Before this foolishness subsides and the house lights come up, Cat presents herself to the audience for approval. (Hey, Polly, where’s the kitchen sink?)
So here’s Draper, tattooed up one arm and down the other, playing a character who calls herself a “bull dyke” and stands behind a microphone in costume designer Jenny Mannis’s Goth togs every once in a while to simulate a Cat Venita concert. With her husband and Nat Wolff, Draper has written a handful of acid-rock tunes. These are available in the lobby — and, presumably, in stores — on a Getting Into Heaven CD that also includes her cover of Warren Zevon’s “Hostage O.” (The production is dedicated to the ailing Zevon.) When Draper steps up to the mic — and, at one, point falls down before it — she croaks with such a pronounced rasp that she’s hoarse through most of the spoken scenes. (Maybe she should find out who Bernadette Peters’s ear, nose, and throat man is and/or get in touch with vocal-coach-to-the-stars Joan Lader.)
Draper may have written this ill-advised piece for herself as part of a strategy to disassociate herself from that role on thirtysomething once and for all. Married to music man Michael Wolff, late of The Arsenio Hall Show, and apparently palsy-walsy with any number of celebrated musicians, Draper has admitted using for her plot some of what she knows about The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, who had a rough time of it after breaking away from her group. But Draper has appropriated some elements from Eric Clapton’s bio as well: It was after Clapton’s son died as a result of falling from a window that the guitarist wrote “Tears in Heaven.” The playwright may also have included aspects of Janis Joplin, who died of a drug overdose, not to mention the glass-shattering Pat Benatar, whose name sounds an awful lot like Cat Venita.
Claire Lundberg directed the actors, who have to do most of their emoting on or around the queen-size bed. Draper certainly believes in Cat and her plight, even if others might not; she throws her lean frame into everything she does, and that includes steamy love scenes with Gretchen Egolf as well as steamy lust scenes with James Badge Dale. When Draper’s Cat is recovering from delivering Lily, she’s particularly moving.
Egolf, blonde and lean, is sexy and appealing as Rose. When the actress also has to play an airhead nurse called Amber — who, according to the nutty script, looks like Rose — she’s okay. But when she has to don a blonde wig and a Superman outfit, for reasons too complicated to be explained here, she seems to barely tolerate the demand. Dale, who appears to have mastered hip-hop gestures, makes a convincing white homeboy and gets to show off in Jed’s authentic-looking video. He runs into trouble, however, when he plays the dead Cal (this is also too complicated to explain) and speaks in an English accent. (Why doesn’t Jed?) Barbara eda-Young makes the dizzy Crystal as believable as anyone could expect, and Cooper Pillot as the Superman-loving Danny is cute enough to pass muster. (Note: He has to listen to lots of racy language, and some theatergoers may find this upsetting.)
The story of a singer battling substance abuse is oh-so-familiar; indeed, a reviewer is hard-pressed to think of a singer’s story that doesn’t involve alcohol or drugs. Some of the particulars are different and they stretch credulity, but nothing — not the lesbian love story, not the subject of parents grieving over a child’s loss — adds up to a compelling excuse for Getting Into Heaven. Before the lights finally fade out in more ways than one on Cat, Danny appears to her in a vision and asks, “Mama, did I ruin your presentation?” Draper as Cat replies, “I don’t know, baby. I think I ruined it all by myself.” She’s on to something there.