Near the beginning of David Cale’s shocking autobiographical one-man show, he gets a laugh when he explains that Luton, the industrial town where he grew up 30 miles north of London “had the highest crime rate in England.”
We eventually learn this isn’t a casual comment thrown in for our amusement; it’s foreshadowing.
For some three decades, Cale has been a fixture in downtown New York and Chicago theater as a playwright and solo performer. His most acclaimed play was his most recent, “Harry Clarke,” performed by Billy Crudup, in which a charming, seductive character is revealed as sinister.
“We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time,” is simple, unfussy, occasionally awkward, more often delightful, ultimately stirring. But it is also truly disturbing. It is David Cale’s first theater piece that reveals the central trauma of his life, which occurred when he was a teenager. Although Cale himself has talked about this trauma in feature articles about this play, I will continue a practice I started with my review of Fairview, and talk about this surprising turn, but only below the photograph and credits at the bottom. I separate this paragraph on behalf of those who feel this would be a spoiler.
In “We’re Only Alive…” Cale tells us the story of his childhood, one in which he felt vulnerable and yearned for flight; it makes for a fitting metaphor that the show is full of birds, as was his life. At rise, Cale sings “Canadian Geese,” the first of a dozen songs he has written for the show with Matthew Dean Marsh, accompanied by a sextet. We soon learn that, starting from around the age of 7, to retreat from his parents’ constant fighting, young David created a “Bird and Animal Hospital” in the wooden shed on the back garden of their home. His first patient was a tortoise he found in the middle of the road, his second a chicken tied to a post, semi-bald, her body smeared with poison – being used as bait to kill foxes. He rescued her, nursed her back to health; she sprouted new feathers and became his pet, following him around the garden. By 17, he had an active aviary and had bred some 300 birds in it.
Much of the show is about his family – his violent drunk of a father, his gangsterish grandfather, a wealthy and stingy owner of a hat factory, his younger brother and especially his mother, thwarted by marriage to his father. He speaks as them, one by one in turn, but makes little effort to become them, with little change in voice or affect. “We’re Only Alive…” is in part a gay coming-of-age story and Cale uses his mother to create a comic moment. She recounts that after the 15-year-old son of their next-door-neighbor tries to commit suicide, David’s father warns David to stay away from Stephen, because he’s queer:
“Some weeks later I wake up at two in the morning, go to the window and I see David standing outside the house in his pajamas. I see him take them off, run down the garden naked, then run back. Then he runs down again. I see him pause at the bottom of the garden, look up at Stephen Theobald’s window. I think, is my ten-year-old boy trying to seduce the fifteen-year-old next door. Have I given birth to the Little Lolita of Luton?”
It’s ironic that David is introduced to the songs of Judy Garland through his father, who was a fan. David then discovers Liza Minnelli, and at age 13, urges his mother to take him to see the movie Cabaret, and lie to the ticket teller about his age. “Roped into this illegal activity by my child.” Afterwards they share a lemon meringue pie at a hamburger joint, while David frets over whether may have possibly been overacting in her first scene in the film. My strange boy,” she says, and it’s one of the best times they spent together.
But Cale doesn’t just use his family to illuminate his youth in “We’re Only Alive…”. Cale presents the members of his family from their point of view, and presents even some of their vile behavior with the kind of perspective, and compassion, that is the mark of an accomplished artist. He has said that he wants the piece to let people know what his mother was like. In that same scene with the pie, his mother recounts turning to her son and saying:
“One day you’re going to realize the potential in me that never saw the light of day.” And her son convinces us in detail that this is true – that she had great potential, and he makes us realize it, sweetly and in sorrow.
We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
Written and Performed by David Cale
Lyrics by David Cale
Music by David Cale and Matthew Dean Marsh
Directed by Robert Falls
Scenic Design Kevin Depinet
Costume Design Paul Marlow
Lighting Design Jennifer Tipton
Sound Design Mikhail Fiksel
Arrangements and Music Direction Matthew Dean Marsh
Production Stage Manager Hannah Woodward
Stage Manager Lily Perlmutter
Music Director/Piano Matthew Dean Marsh
Viola Josh Henderson
Harp Tomina Parvanova
Cello Jessica Wang
Trumpet John Blevins
Clarinet Tyler Hsieh
Cale’s father murdered his mother. The case became a tabloid sensation. The teenage David was called to testify at a trial, requiring him to answer just yes or no to questions that attempted to paint a picture of an out-of-control woman and a husband who was thus acting in self-defense – a picture that Cale makes abundantly clear was false but which worked in getting David’s father just three years in prison, reduced to 18 months for good behavior. David left for America at the age of 21, changed his last name, and only saw his father three more times before his father died.
The hat factory where Cale’s mother and father worked, and which his grandfather owned, is now a performing arts center.