The first Robert Attenweiler play I ever saw, Thick Like Piano Legs, dazzled me with its lyrical language and spirit; The Butterfield Tones, Attenweiler's new piece at FRIGID New York, confirms my suspicion that he's one of the most talented poets writing for the theatre right now. In this play, one of the characters—a budding rock & roll musician named Ike Butterfield—says this to his partner in life and work, a singer named Tina: "Listen, we play hard—so hard sometimes more a you comes out a your mouth than the words." And shortly afterward, Tina says to him "People talk loudly about you, Ike. Something about you makes people want to scream down 'bout you from rooftops, seems."
I love this writing. The Butterfield Tones is very short (about 35 minutes) and accomplishes a great deal in that time: its first scene shows us Ike and Tina at their very first gig away from home, in front of a far-from-satisfying too-small crowd. The second scene shows us Ike and Tina the next day; he's restless and cocky, trying to justify a roaming eye and an ambition that's already threatening to destroy him; she's searching for something steadier and safer, and thinks she may have found it in a spectral visitor who turns out to be the ghost of a one-time professional wrestler. Attenweiler freely acknowledges his debt to Sam Shepard here: pop culture iconography substitutes for religion as a lost American soul searches for salvation.
The Ike and Tina allusion (i.e., to the Turners) is also explicitly acknowledged, with a snippet of "Proud Mary." I suspect the play might be stronger if it were severed, though, because I didn't feel the connection between Attenweiler's couple and the real-life one. (It also begs the question as to why the actors cast as Ike and Tina, Joe Stipek and Becky Benhayon, are white.)
But the piece packs a wallop in its raw, intimate way, thanks to a strong performance by Will Petre as Jose Silencio, the wrestler who haunts Tina; an exciting extended fight sequence, choreographed by Attenweiler's co-director John Patrick Hayden; and the live music by Ryan Cavanagh. And Attenweiler's language thrills; I will look forward eagerly to his next effort.