Belly of a Drunken Piano
nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
August 24, 2005
I'd sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you're looking for someone
to pull you out of that ditch
You're out of luck, you're out of luck
Welcome to the black world of Tom Waits. A world where “God's away, God's away, God's away on Business. Business.” A world where Romeo is bleeding, the piano has been drinking, the earth died screaming. A world where Eugene O’Neill, Kurt Weill, and Mose Allison would feel perfectly comfortable in joining together for a final drink. A world delivered up to you with a rasp and a leer and a shrug.
And a really cool driving bass line.
This world is skillfully and lovingly evoked by Stewart D’Arrietta in the intimate cabaret presentation Belly of a Drunken Piano, now at the Huron Club basement of the Soho Playhouse. For more than two hours, D’Arrietta growls his way through the Tom Waits catalog, with admirable fidelity, clean enunciation, and consummate showmanship. The Brisbane, Australia, native intersperses his singing with anecdotes drawn from both Waits’s life and his own, thus framing the songs and personalizing the evening.
D’Arrietta is complemented and backed by a trio of strong musicians—Philip Rex on double bass, Anthony Barrett on guitar, and Danny Fischer on drums. These are the kind of musicians who close their eyes and merge with the music; they serve D’Arrietta—and Tom Waits—exceedingly well with their tight, controlled, impassioned playing.
The evening unfolds in no particular order, with no one story to tell. (Or at least that’s the impression from the preview, which was a one-hour version of the full show, much to D’Arrietta’s—and the audience’s—obvious dismay.) D’Arrietta moves smoothly from the ironic to the cacophonic, from the sad and sweet to the harsh and insistent. His voice is as gravelly and compelling as the master’s; his interpretations are faithful. A haunting highlight was D’Arrietta’s recreation of Waits’s cover of the Bernstein-Sondheim classic, “Somewhere.” Numerous other songs were offered up to the appreciative audience, drawn from all stages of Waits’s career.
The venue is comfortable (in contrast to some of the songs). And it is thrilling to be so close to the music and musicians. The between-song patter was, for me, the least successful part of the show, as it was sometimes a bit coarse, sometimes a bit maudlin. But it effectively connected the material and—more importantly—connected the audience to the performer, and vice versa.
It is always a revelation to enter Tom Waits territory, to be simultaneously saddened and heartened by his gallery of misfits, rogues, losers, paranoiacs, dreamers, drifters. To find love in an ash heap
I miss your broken-china voice
How I wish you were still here with me
and hope in the gutter
They're wounded but they just keep on climbing
And sleep by the side of the road
And in these trying and bitter times, how reassuring to know that somebody’s always figured it would be just this bad.
don't you know there ain't
no devil, there's just god when he's drunk
If this world beckons you, see Belly of a Drunken Piano. It’s a decent substitute in the absence of a show featuring the real Tom Waits.