Bukowski from Beyond
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 8, 2005
The title—Bukowski from Beyond—suggests that the great poet and writer Charles Bukowski has come back from the dead to do one last reading of his work. Or maybe we're in heaven (or hell, or purgatory, or wherever the blazes Bukowski is spending eternity) and he's signed on to do this show to earn his keep there. Either way, expect no compromise from this singular author whose vision of the world—at once romantic and blearily pragmatic—enabled him to create a body of work that alternately tickles, shocks, disturbs, pokes, and profoundly moves the listener.
This solo show, which is directed by Leo Farley, performed by Steve Payne, and has been adapted from Bukowski's works by both of them, takes us on a journey through the writer's life and soul, wryly winking at the conventions of the one-man play along the way. These gentlemen collaborated a few years back on South of No North, a play based on several of Bukowski's stories in which Payne played Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego. So they know the territory; their passion for and understanding of Bukowski's work is spectacularly apparent in this show's content and form. Payne drawls the poems and stories to punch up their sardonic humor. He surprises us with a variety of voices—different from the whiskey growl he uses for Bukowski/Chinaski—in narratives about the writer's family and the hard-nosed women and drunken barflies who populate the tales (Bukowski's poems and stories are like a tour through noir country, except you know that he lived every word).
In the middle of a long piece about how, at seven years old, he attempted to fly off the roof of his house, only to be soundly beaten by his severely dysfunctional father for breaking or spraining a bone and needing to go to the doctor, Payne-as-Bukowski looks up to announce that he's going to skip a whole bunch of stuff about his grandfather—and then flips over about three sheets in his notebook before continuing.
When the audience tries to applaud the first piece, he sternly warns us not to; and then, a few minutes later, he slyly remarks that a little applause now and then would be fine. When the response is too tepid for his taste—it almost always is—he chides us further, telling us we're doing golf claps (and he lapses into ironic muted sportscaster commentary on an imaginary golf game to let us know we're not enthusiastic enough).
About an hour into the thing, Payne asks if he might be excused to take a piss. (He's been steadily drinking beer throughout his performance, in true Bukowski tradition, so he probably really needs to.) He's gone for about four minutes, and then returns. "I probably shouldn't have done that," he barks. "Some people thought it was over and left."
The point of all of these little anecdotes about the evening being, I hope you'll understand, that Bukowski from Beyond doesn't feel like any other one-man play I've ever seen; its acknowledgement of the artifice of the situation and its easy embrace of the audience rock the form even as they reveal the spirit of its subject.
Grand as Payne is, Bukowski's words are the undisputed star of the evening, and they're so worth hearing. His poetry is gorgeous, here evoking, with uncanny precision, lonely and/or wistful times alone or in strange company; there delineating a list of several dozen artists, writers, and poets who are Bukowski's heroes. The wisdom is sometimes so simple that its breathtaking; the imagery is so sharp that it's like hearing a crystal clear photograph. Throughout, the work reminds us that what a poet does is to make large and complicated ideas vivid and compact. Bukowksi from Beyond exercises all of our senses as its vibrant language flies past us, and makes us hungry for more. If this play takes off, sales of Bukowski's books are going to take off.
Farley's staging is on-target and unobtrusive. He's put a pianist, the talented and good-natured Carl Riehl, on stage to serve as very occasional accompanist and more frequent foil to Payne; it's an inspired touch.
This is a sort-of workshop engagement of a piece that Farley and Payne have been developing for a while now. It's splendid and deserves a long life. Hopefully an extended run is in Bukowski's future.