Len, Asleep in Vinyl
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
June 1, 2008
Before going to see Len, Asleep In Vinyl, Carly Mensch's new play directed by Jackson Gay at the Second Stage Theatre, I read an interview the playwright gave on the theatre's website. I was unfamiliar with her work and was hoping to get some insight into the play or a head's-up on the themes the play might explore. In answer to a question concerning "what, if anything" the audience "needs to know coming into the theatre," Mensch says while there isn't information "needed" to understand the story at its center, a working knowledge of indie rock would be helpful:
What's interesting about my generation's alternative music scene I think is that it's surprisingly devoid of rage or any of the volatile elements that launched rock and roll in the first place. On the whole it's a pretty intellectual, clean-cut movement—rock stars who wear nerdy glasses and skinny ties and sing songs with highly literate vocabulary. It's a very safe rebellion.
Whether or not you agree with this assessment of indie rock, the quote is helpful in identifying a major theme at the heart of the play and goes a long way toward explaining why this smart production doesn't totally live up to its dramatic potential.
Len, Asleep In Vinyl tells the story of Len, a financially successful and critically acclaimed record producer, a genius with sound, in possession of "golden ears," which will someday "be on display in some Hall of Fame museum." On being presented an award for his latest work, however—an album by a teen phenom named Zoe, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Britney Spears—Len undergoes a crisis of faith. He's ashamed he's lowered himself and his standards to work on such a project. He leaves the nationally broadcast ceremony and isolates himself in his cabin, deep in the middle of nowhere. He spends his days avoiding food and sleep, listening to books on tape and clinging to his substantial collection of vinyl albums.
His son Max, with whom he's never been very close, interrupts his isolation. Max goes to the cabin because his vacationing mother sends him to check on Len and because he has an indie band of his own whose studio demo he'd like Len to listen to. He's also looking to reconnect with his father, but we'll get to that in a minute.
Zoe, who bursts into the cabin to let Len know she'd like to start writing her own songs, also interrupts Len's solace. She was on the stage when Len walked out and she's come to let him know she's disappointed. She also lets him know that she didn't drive drunk up to the cabin, she'd like to start writing her own songs, and in surprisingly concise terms, she reveals the conflict at the heart of her relationship with Len. "It's really complicated. Len helped me discover my sound. But then he destroyed me. So that wasn't fun."
There's also William, a teenager who lives in the nearby town. William is an acolyte who does odd jobs around Len's cabin and absorbs Len's teachings. William is eccentric. He lacks social graces and speaks with a drawl reminiscent of Jack Nicholson but Len seems more comfortable speaking to him than he does to his own son. He doesn't take him seriously, but he's achieved a familiarity and respect for William that he denies every one of the other characters.
And it is in this regard—Len's relationship with, well, everyone—where Len, Asleep In Vinyl falters. The play contains all the necessary elements to create genuine drama: a son confronting his father after years of being ignored; an artist both rebelling against and pleading with the mentor who abandons her; the conflict between a natural and a surrogate son; and a man at conflict with himself for the both the self he's become and the self he never became. Len stands in the middle of all these dramas but the play stumbles because as directed, Len is never as charismatic as described and the relationships depicted are never solid enough to sustain the drama inherent in the material.
Len is an interesting proposition as a character—suffering geniuses are a myth well worth exploring—and Michael Cullen plays Len with conviction; but the character's narcissism overshadows the more compelling and complex parts of his personality. The result is a character difficult to care about. This would make sense if it was a play full of ambitious, vainglorious characters seeking to exploit his talents, but the other characters in the play have been directed to genuinely care about him. And as the play goes on, the stakes of their relationship with him aren't raised high enough or are never quite clear enough to understand what exactly they gain from his acceptance or lose from his rejection. The play flashes a hint of this when Isabelle—Max's mother and Len's wife—returns from her trip to set Len straight about the state of their union and the quality of their son. Leslie Lyles plays this scene beautifully, balancing the love she has for this broken man with the cost such love has wrought.
Near the end of the play, Len gives a specific and heartbreaking explanation for why he's reluctant to listen to Max's tape and why he thinks his son won't succeed. "Rock—real rock music," Len says, "is about heat and intensity and emotion. It's about channeling the beast within, not making some form of ironic commentary with your buddies..."
Len, Asleep In Vinyl feels similar to this sentiment. It is smart and knowing and nerdy, like the indie rock Mensch describes in her interview. But by focusing on their surface relationships instead of exploring the characters' needs, their rage, it ends up lacking the heat, the intensity, and ultimately the guts of real drama.