It’s safe to say that Judith Rossner’s seminal Looking for Mr. Goodbar isn’t on anyone’s list of books or movies that call out for the musical treatment. That didn’t deter the glam-punk band Bambi and the downtown theater troupe Waterwell from doing what experimental theater does best: defying expectations. Their collaboration, Goodbar, is a stunningly theatrical, though emotionally detached, punk rock reimagining of the novel that will either knock your socks off or leave you wondering what the hell it was you just saw.
Inspired by the 1973 murder of Roseann Quinn, the piece examines the life and sexual awakening of Theresa, a young, seemingly innocent teacher of deaf students who leads a hidden life, prowling grungy bars and picking up dangerous men for even more dangerous sex. A staged concept album (or theatriconcert), Goodbar, with music by Jimmie Marlowe and lyrics by Kevin Townley, is a series of interconnected songs and transition dialogue that vaguely tells Theresa’s story, from her short-lived sexual relationship with a college professor to her interactions with students to her murder. Told as a flashback, it begins with her killer’s confession, as a light bulb ominously swings back and forth on screen (video clips, designed by Alex Koch, give images to what’s being sung). Theresa is sung by the captivating Hanna Cheek, with the hypnotic Townley providing the vocals of the male characters. Marlowe, Cara Jeiven, Tobi Parks and Mark Reynolds provide the pounding accompaniment. (It wasn’t as loud as I was expecting, though I did use the complimentary ear plugs given to me at the door.)
Co-directed by Waterwell co-founders Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgley, Goodbar is awash with flashing neon lights (Adam Frank), pulsating sound (Gaby Savransky), and metaphor. To symbolize Theresa’s issues with a large scar on her back from childhood surgery, Cheek is strapped into a large, metallic sculpture-thing in which she must struggle to move around. Later, a confetti cannon is used to symbolize a penis ejaculating. It’s simple little details such as these (along with nifty on-screen cameos by Ira Glass, Kelli O’Hara, Bobby Cannavale, and Moby, among others) that make Goodbar so captivating and often mesmerizing. With the actors on screen dressed in contemporary costumes (the gorgeously abstract on-stage designs are by Erik Bergrin) and filmed in contemporary bars, the creators also manage to draw parallels between today’s scene and the 1970’s (though the show, as I read it, is without time period). What you don’t feel is sympathy, for anyone, but you get the impression that this was a deliberate choice.
Naturally, Goodbar isn’t for everyone, and anyone put off by foul language, loud music, and on-screen nudity should likely stay away. If you know what you’re getting into, it’s a fascinating experience that will leave you scratching your head—and with images burned in your mind for days to come.