Smoke the New Cigarette is the kind of challenging, unlike-anything-you've-seen-before, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around show that I often feel compelled to handle by decreeing "this show isn't for everybody," thus imbuing it with a possibly tantalizing bit of snob appeal and declaring myself a with-it, above-the-fray, cleverer-than-the-average-whatever possessor of excellent taste and judgment.
But no show has ever NOT warranted that kind of special treatment more than Smoke the New Cigarette; indeed such handling would be fundamentally dishonest. Because this new play by Kirk Wood Bromley—and even though it's shaped like a cross between a Web 3.0 "behind-the-music" docudrama parody and a performance art piece worthy of the billing it has adopted for itself ("a freeform chamber punk explosion"), it is very definitely and distinctly a play—is an exploration, dissection, and consideration of art and artists and the essential state of grace that their creativity leads to. It traces the very brief career of a post-everything band called The New Cigarette, makers of music that intentionally lacks tone and rhythm, two of the main components of music as we understand it. Performances of five of their songs (live, but purporting to be recordings) are framed within a radio retrospective (recorded, but purporting to be live). We're invited to judge The New Cigarette's work, over and over, as rotten, and in places we may indeed buy into that idea. Certainly there's an over-the-topness and a blatant disregard for form and sensibility that both makes the punk designation valid and invites laughter or derision or just plain old mouth-dropping-open, depending on how you choose to feel about what you're hearing and seeing.
But what I kept coming back to was a celebration of the valor of the crazed, eccentric, misunderstood, terminally alone artist. Not in a too-special-to-live Van Gogh context, but rather in a what-the-heck-is-the-point-of-art-unless-it-means-something-to-the-artist context. What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is. (Awareness of this is making it hard to write this review, by the way; I am trying hard not to prove the value of Smoke the New Cigarette but simply to share my enthusiasm for it and encourage you to see it, if you think you might like it.)
What happens during the 75 minutes of this show is extremely hard to describe but fairly easy to summarize. There are five long songs, performed by Bromley (vocals, guitar, cello, trombone) and Leah Schrager (vocals, piano, drums, flute, baby cello); they are joined on the last two by Beth Griffith and Peter Schmitz (remarkable dance and vocals) and, in the fourth number, by other guest artists for a jam session that feels like what a chaotic but energy-filled night at a Greenwich Village or Harlem jazz club must have felt like decades ago, while sounding entirely different. There's a weird multimedia element (projections of lyrics and images that may or may not illuminate what you're otherwise seeing and hearing). There's accomplished sound mastering by John Gideon. And, throughout, pervasively, there's Bromley's poetics, brimming with his signature non-sequiturs that make you wish you could listen faster, so that your brain can keep pace with the alarming and astonishing ideas chasing past. Here's a sample lyric that I managed to remember intact: "Please don't forgive me if I repeat itself" followed shortly after by "Please don't refresh me if I delete myself."
Contained within all this are an assault on post-modern and nihilist art and a passionate defense of the artist's urge to create. There's also a throughline, or possibly even two of them.
Smoke the New Cigarette, Bromley's sixth contribution to FringeNYC, exemplifies what this festival and all of indie theater are capable of at their best. It's not for everybody only because everybody doesn't agree that following a playwright/poet on a quest for something that's new and inventive and enervating all at the same time might be the most rewarding way to spend some of a summer evening. (And of course, everybody is right.)