On-Line Review by Christian Leopold Shea:


An Auto-Erotic Thriller

(c) 2001 by Christian Leopold Shea. All rights reserved.

As most of my regular readers know, I am capable of dragging myself away from the television set or out of those really, really comfy theater seats that reviewers get to sit in at previews in order to watch live stage performances -- the kind with actual people performing. I have shared my views of Christopher Masterson, Matthew Bourne's Cinderella, and Sweeney Todd (which, bear in mind, I did not review -- I just wrote a long piece about what a wonderful production it was and how I got Christine Baranski's autograph and how Neil Patrick Harris was very nice and didn't beat the crap out of me for having written "Ode to Doogie Howser, M.D." some years ago, and so on.

This theatre season, terrorist vermin nothwithstanding, I just got to see a performance of Matthew Bourne's The Car Man: An Auto-Erotic Thriller. Let me try to sum this one up for you, difficult though that task may be.

First, it's by Matthew Bourne, who gave us a Cinderella set during the Blitz, and Gay swans in Swan Lake: that means lots of balletic dancing, some homo-eroticism, and completely unexpected touches designed to wake up jaded theatre audiences who only attend shows because they have had season tickets since the dawn of time. Second, the music is based on Rodion Schedrin's Carmen Suite, which is based upon the score of Bizet's opera Carmen, which is based upon Prosper MŽrimŽe's novella of the same name -- the one about the gypsy and the bullfighter, which has been the inspiration for dozens of ballets, operas, films, and one or two Bugs Bunny cartoons. Third, the main story and the acting is based upon James M. Cain's noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice, about an auto mechanic who falls in love (or at least into really heated lust) with the wife of the garage owner for whom he works, with murderous consequences -- our eponymous (anti-)hero is the car man who gets involved with erotic experiences around autos which leads to a murder thriller -- get it? It's Matthew Bourne, remember. Surely you didn't expect this to be some staid, boring, prosaic, ho-hum, high-brow costume piece with sopranos shrieking in some foreign language just because it's supposed to be classy, did you? Hell, no! This is exciting art for the masses -- guys like me who get tired of watching John McTiernan, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, Roland Emmerich, and others of the lowest-common-denominator ilk blow up buildings (we have Osama Bin Ladin for that now); guys like me who want to be entertained by something more mentally challenging than a running body count, and -- yes -- something alive once in a while.

The Ahmanson's Los Angeles production of The Car Man throbs with life. Bob Dole wouldn't need Viagra if he could see this show. It's not porn, mind you, it's just -- erotic . . . very, very erotic -- in the original sense of the word, which was to to desire to be a part of something beautiful. To see The Car Man is to want to be in it. The dancers make "Harmony, U.S.A.," the setting for the production, come alive with their bodies: dance, gestures, facial expressions, a certain way of standing or walking -- all of it tells us that these people are us, working folks who lead boring lives tied to their jobs, whose only release is take-out food, an occasional blow out at a bar, and, of course, intimate relations with one another.

The two central relationships in "Harmony, U.S.A." are those of Dino Alfaro, owner of Dino's Diner and Garage and his wife, Lana, and that of her sister, Rita, with her boyfriend, the wimpy, picked-upon, bullied Angelo. Into their lives comes "Luca, a drifter," about whom more anon.

Around them swirl the lives of a dozen other locals (plus a thirteenth: "Chuck, the local cop"), and that swirl is a steamy continuum of dance which conveys dating, romance, break-ups, three-ways, and sexuality in all of its combinations among people, including rape -- all expressed in dance to the glorious strains of the Carmen Suite. The effect is stunning, even shocking, but so complex that one viewing isn't enough to convey the complexity of everything which is happening; The Car Man merits seeing at least two or three times to enable the theatre-goer to drink his or her full of the complexities of these people -- and these are just the supporting characters, remember! My personal advice would be to see this production once from the Orchestra section or Mezzanine, and again from higher up in the theatre to get a fuller grasp of the interweaving patterns of the lives of these people.

As for the main storyline, Luca, seeing the life in Harmony (and definitely getting an eye full of Lana) convinces Dino to hire him, and Dino ostentatiously tears down a sign which has been prominent so far on the stage: MAN WANTED. Dino wants a man to help in the garage. Lana wants a man, period, and she makes certain that Luca knows it.

Dino is an oaf, a clod, a blight on good taste, and definitely not a desirable bed partner, so when he leaves town, Lana, taking her cue from the escapades of Dino's workers, gets Luca into the sack -- only to have Dino return early, sending Luca scurrying out a window -- and into a back seat with Rita's boyfriend Angelo, where he takes care of his unfinished business.

Dino is not so easily fooled, and he eventually catches Lana and Luca going at it, and Lana brains him with a monkey wrench (that's "an adjustable spanner" to my British readers). That isn't enough to keep him down, though, so the muscular Luca has at him -- again and again. The two killers than ransack Dino's office to make it look as though some intruder has done the foul deed (the killing, that is).

Dino, however, just will not stay dead, and when Angelo walks by, he staggers into his arms, covering him with blood. Dino and Angelo had argued before, in front of everyone. Luca had taught Angelo to fight. Angelo was more than capable of killing Dino, and it is he who is imprisoned for the killing, while Lana and Luca proceed to place the garage and diner up for sale and begin to spend Dino's money.

While the now-unemployed locals try to forget their troubles by introducing country dancing to the local beatnik bar (only to find their hormone-driven selves entangled in the lives of the beatniks), Luca turns to drinking and gambling in front of them, spending the money which would have ordinarily been their pay. Bad blood is beginning to well up.

Poor framed Angelo, obviously the victim of jailhouse rape, expresses his torment in a solo dance performed with his hands bound -- ballet in bondage. Rita visits him. He is tormented by the events of the fatal night and finally realizes the truth behind the killing: his friend Luca must have been the killer and framed him for the murder. When warden Dexter appears to rape Angelo, Angelo, in a fury, overpowers the man and escapes from jail, carrying Dexter's gun.

Returning to the proverbial scene of the crime, a "fight night" is in progress, but it is marred by an evil omen: someone has scrawled "Murderer" in red across the front of the diner, but the mechanics and their friends, with Luca, proceed with their round-robin of fights anyway. When Luca is almost the last one standing, Angelo appears, gun in hand, and accuses him of the murder. A fight ensues between the two former . . . friends? sex buddies? . . . and the production comes to a violent and dramatic conclusion, from which the people of "Harmony, U.S.A." must recover in their own way.

This production of The Car Man uses a rotating cast -- the audience program lists all of the roles and the various dancers who fill them, but it is only on the night of the performance that one learns what the actual cast will be (another incentive to see it more than once, to watch the different nuances of the various performers). At the performance I saw, Dino, Lana, Rita, Angelo, and Luca, were, respectively, Neil Penlington, Vicky Evans, Etta Murfitt, Arthur Pita, and Alan Vincent. Murfitt and Pita seemed to be the audience's favorite performers that evening, but I would like to draw the attention of my readers to Richard Winsor, who played "Marco," one of the mechanics at Dino's. Winsor's polished dancing and assertive performance as the (mostly) Gay Marco, who is not above telling a woman to get lost when he wants to share a table with the man he fancies, was truly eye-catching, and often upstaged the principals; he was a strong performer in a very interesting role, and I predict a bright future for him. True to my own advice, I would personally like to see him dance his alternate role of Vito, another of the mechanics.

The Car Man plays at the Ahmanson Theatre, at the Music Centre in Downtown Los Angeles, through October 28, 2001. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772, or visit the Mark Taper Forum / Ahmanson Theatre web site. From October 30 through November 3, 2001, The Car Man will be performed at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. For information on tickets to those performances, call (510) 642-9988 or click here to find out more information.

Remember, folks, had you saved the money which you wasted going to see this summer's mostly lousy movies, you would have more than enough for choice seats for The Car Man. Bah! Let Spielberg keep his cartoon dinosaurs -- I'd rather have real actors doing real acting any day!

With the rise in theater ticket prices and the growing international audience of our page, our old NW2: Not Worth $2 (U. S. dollars) to W8: Worth $8 movie rating scale has become less useful than previously, so we have adopted a scale of 1 star to 10 stars, with "1 Star" being a VERY bad movie, and "10 Stars" being a movie classic. Theatre tickets, of course, are usually considerably more expensive, so on this scale, anything rated "7 Stars" or above is definitely worth the cost of a theatre ticket, "8 Stars" is worth standing in line to buy a ticket, "9 Stars" is worth standing in line in a driving rain rainstorm or severe heatwave or moderate windstorm to buy a ticket, and "10 Stars" is a production worth driving hundreds of miles to go see -- at least in Dr. Shea's own opinion. (As for McTiernan and his kind, we paraphrase Romeo's friend Mercutio: "Weapons of mass destruction on all their houses!") Accordingly,

The Car Man is an 8 Star production.

Go see it! (Better yet, see it more than once if you can afford the tickets -- it's worth it.)

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