The plot of David Cale's We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time requires a spoiler warning. A new, multicharacter solo show at the Public Theater, the 90-minute play with music hinges on a major revelation that comes midway through and can be triggering to a great many viewers. It's hard to discuss the piece without mentioning this central plot point, but to do so would ruin the artfully decorated house of cards that Cale builds and subsequently demolishes with the same force as the lived experiences that inspired it. So I'll skirt around it as delicately as he does. Until he can't anymore.
As a child, Cale raised birds of all sorts in his family's backyard. These aviaries were his escape from the small town where he was raised; the colorful plumage of Rhode Island Reds and Australian finches lit up Luton, England, an ugly factory city he evocatively describes as "where the grey meets the grey." They also enabled him to ignore the fraught nature of his parents' marriage. Ron and Barbara Egleton (Cale's hereditary surname) always seemed to be at odds. Ron was a raging alcoholic, and Barbara watched all of her ambition be stifled as she toiled in the hat factory owned by Ron's tough father, Jimmy.
For the most part, We're Only Alive… is a study of Barbara, a lonely, forlorn woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, with a pair of sons she doesn't know how to relate to. (She later learns that the key to building a relationship with David is by taking him to see Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.) Cale brings her to vivid, sensitive life simply through vocal lilts and physical movement, like a sad slump of the shoulders. On the other hand, Ron is conveyed through a deep, guttural, working-class basso that rightfully makes us uncomfortable.
This level of discomfort slowly creeps up on us, as Cale and director Robert Falls strategically lull us into a false sense of security in the first half. Part of this aura is developed through design. In the everyman button-down and slacks of costumer Paul Marlow, Cale is as unassuming as it gets. The stage is completely unadorned, save for a raised platform at the center and a few birdcages that dangle from above (Kevin Depinet is the designer). And through commentary torch songs penned by Cale (music and lyrics) and Matthew Dean Marsh (music), Cale is able to put his big, musical-theater-size emotions on display.
But when Jennifer Tipton's stark lighting covertly turns eerie, we know something isn't quite right. We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time unexpectedly becomes an exorcism of pent-up human emotion, which Cale unpeels with the exactness of a forensic analyst. It is a brutal, honest look at what makes and unmakes a family, and reminds us why we should value the time that we have, since we never know how short it's going to be.