The Devil %amp; Billy Markham
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
August 12, 2006
A warning to the parents: yes, Shel Silverstein may have written The Devil and Billy Markham. But while this is the same Shel Silverstein who wrote the beloved children's books The Giving Tree and A Light In The Attic, this show is absolutely not for kids. For Shel Silverstein had another side—one who liked to wait until the kiddies went to sleep, then turned to the grownups with a leer and said "I have a story for you, now."
In this one-man show, Dave Toomey tells us one of those stories; the tale of Billy Markham, a down-on-his-luck musician who challenges the Devil to a game of dice one fateful night in a Nashville bar. Billy loses that game, but he and the Devil keep challenging each other to bigger gambles, some involving dice or pool—and others involving wits, sex, and supernatural disguise. Billy keeps rising to each challenge, even though the stakes rise each time—towards the end, instead of just gambling with his own soul, he risks his mother's, daughter's, and true love's souls as well.
I'd actually read the play a couple of years ago. It's a fun, bawdy romp, a perfect after-hours tall tale for a dive bar with spilled beer on the floor, ZZ Top on the jukebox, and a crowd loose enough to laugh at the raunchy parts. It's a tale that actors have great fun telling, and Toomey is no exception, acting out each of the parts with great zest; he even leaps out into the house at one point, cavorting through the audience as he describes an especially wild scene at a party in Hell. He sings, too—the story is written as an epic poem, and Toomey has written his own music for some of the segments and accompanies himself on guitar.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Toomey brings some poignancy to the story as well, in Billy's sudden shock and delight to find himself unexpectedly back on earth at one point, or his tears during a segment when he confronts the danger he's caused his loved ones. It's fitting, though; the best blues songs are all a mix of sex, sin, remorse, and redemption.
Director Paul Urcioli wisely lets Toomey have all the fun; there's no set or sound to get in the way. Eric Southern lends some creepy atmosphere with his lighting, but the tale and its engaging teller are the real stars of the show.
But I'm serious when I say not to bring the kids. You'll thank me after you hear the song "No One Ever Said No."