SAN DIEGO — Stephen Metcalfe's "The Incredibly Famous Willy Rivers" at the Old Globe Theatre is a rather sweet and fairly synthetic play about a rock star trying to get the courage to go on for his comeback concert. He needs more than the usual amount of courage, because the last time he did a concert, a fan shot and almost killed him.
Willy does go on, but just before he does, his life flashes before his eyes, and that's the bulk of the play. The most original scene has Brian Kerwin as Willy visiting his would-be assassin (John Bowman) in a mental hospital in order to make him realize that he hurt a person and not a star.
But the would-be assassin has become famous in his own right, and he takes Willy's reluctant handshake as a sign that he is now one of the elect. Bowman's weirdly self-satisfied air is convincing and disturbing. This would have made an excellent central scene for a play about how the notion of "fame" has gone haywire in postwar America.
Metcalfe touches on that, but the play is really a celebration of the artist's need to do his art, no matter what. Willy's moment of truth involves a visit to his senile father (Jonathan McMurtry), and suggests the Gloucester-Poor Tom recognition scene in "King Lear" crossed with "Mr. Bojangles." I didn't believe a word of it, but, as usual, admired McMurtry's ability to create a character out of whatever words he's given.
The play feels invented: an outsider's notion of the music business, with everyone some kind of monster--except for Willy, of course. He has got to have been around the music business for at least 10 years, but he's presented as a wide-eyed naif in blue jeans, as if he were seeing all this sex and death for the first time.
An enforced sabbatical might lead a man to see his profession as if for the first time. But he would have acquired enough professional smarts along the way. If Willy is so famous, why hasn't he acquired some power? Why does he have to dance to the tune of a totally nihilistic manager (Dann Florek)?
Such questions might seem to be irrelevant to a morality play. (Another influence here is "Everyman.") But since the pretense is that we are getting the real scoop on the rock world, a little more attention to Willy's flaws--not just his sex life on the road--would have made him more recognizable. It also would have made his final song a moment of rebirth, not just a big finish.
Actor Brian Kerwin and director Jack O'Brien haven't searched for interesting little ways to go against the character's grain of utter goodness. Kerwin is likable to a fault, and also rather bland. We can imagine him making records, but there's none of the wildness of white rivers here. He's a nice boy, period.
The physical production is smashing. Douglas Schmidt's set has revolving towers, descending bridges--all the stuff we loved in "Dream Girls." David Segal's cross-lighting may be even better than was "Dream Girls'." Robert Blackman's costumes are not furs and feathers, but they work well too. "The Incredibly Famous Willy Rivers" looks great, but don't listen to it too hard.
'THE INCREDIBLY FAMOUS WILLY RIVERS'
Stephen Metcalfe's play, at the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego. Director Jack O'Brien. Scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt. Costume designer Robert Blackman. Lighting designer David F. Segal. Sound designer Michael Holten. Original music Donny Markowitz and Denny McCormick. Lyrics Stephen Metcalfe. Production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. Stage manager Diane F. DiVita. With Brian Kerwin, Dann Florek, Pippa Pearthree, Lisa Dunsheath, Sydney Lloyd-Smith, William Anton, Dave Florek, James McDaniel, John Bowman, Jonathan McMurtry, Eric Grischkat, Mark Hofflund, Ric Oquita, Pamela Tomassetti. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets Closes March 8. Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 239-2255.