When Hal Holbrook comes out in a white linen suit, we know that the show is going to be about Mark Twain.
When Spalding Gray comes out in a red plaid shirt, we know that the show is going to be about Spalding Gray.
But there is another kind of solo show, typified by David Cale's "The Redthroats" at Taper, Too, during the UK/LA '88 Festival, and by Barry Yourgrau's "Wearing Dad's Head (The Live Version)" at Pipeline.
Both performers wear noncommittal black. They are witnesses in the cause of an absent third party, whose story they know almost as well as they know their own.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 17, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 7 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
The last performance of "Wearing Dad's Head (The Live Version)" at the Boyd Street Theatre will take place at 8 p.m. Friday. The wrong closing date was given Tuesday.
Cale narrates the adventures of young Steven Weird, son of Mr. and Mrs. Weird of Littleton, England. The most exciting thing to do in Littleton is to watch the red-throats swim under the bridge. Steven therefore spends much time in his room singing along with Judy Garland records.
Too much time, according to his parents. They come to a dire end and Steven makes his way to London, where he is befriended by a strange gentleman and is entrusted with the care of a band of orphans.
(We bowdlerize a bit here, but the Dickensian tone applies: Cale narrates Steven's misadventures with the spooky, round-eyed wonder of Smike in "Nicholas Nickleby.")
Finally, our hero emplanes for heaven--i.e., America.
Yourgrau's character at Pipeline doesn't have a name or an action line. His adventures are as disconnected and fantastic as dreams. Forms and faces change, ghosts appear, one's mother is suddenly revealed to be a movie star.
As in dreams, it all seems perfectly logical at the time. These vignettes don't mean ; they just are . But, as with Cale's show, there's a definite emphasis on the hero's parents, dead but not departed.
He keeps running into them, and they haven't changed. For example, his father wants him to start wearing his old tweed coat. But Dad, it doesn't fit! So what, have it altered--"Any tailor would give his eyeteeth to work with cloth like that!" But, Dad!
"Don't raise your voice to me!"
Where Cale finds each event in his hero's life pregnant with mystery, even when it isn't, Yourgrau reads his tales in a deadpan way, as if they were letters from somebody else.
His body language belies this: He smites his brow and shakes his fist. But it's as if he were quoting these gestures. They don't flow from the center. Whether the disconnection is planned or not, it strikes the Pipeline audience as hilarious.
With Cale, the gesture and the line are one. He knows how to inhabit a scene; how to cut from one character to another; how to make an audience wait. He is aided at Taper, Too, by Carol McDowell's beautifully simple lighting design. She, too, understands the power of a few strong choices.
Cale's characters live in the moment more vividly than Yourgrau's do, particularly Steven's mother, with her eternal rhetorical questions--Why can't you love me, why can't you be home for supper on time, why can't we be like other people?
However, we have met the Sensitive Boy and his Monster Parents before. Yourgrau's family romance is more subtly chronicled, and his little pieces may need the confidentiality of print to sink in. ('Wearing Dad's Head" has been published as a book--Gibbs M. Smith Co., $7.95.) In that case, it makes sense to under-perform them and leave the audience wanting more.
Each show could stand to be longer. Yourgrau bows off after about 45 minutes, just as the listener is getting to see the expressive possibilities of his "blocked" style. Cale quits after an hour, leaving us to wonder whether Steve ever gets to play the Palace. (His tale will be published too, by Random House.)
Interesting shows, each, but not full-fledged ones, as with Holbrook and Gray.
Yourgrau has one more performance, at 8 p.m. Sunday at 301 Boyd St. Tickets: $8; (213) 629-2205. "The Redthroats," part of the UK/LA Festival, plays at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with Saturday matinees at 2:30, through March 6. Tickets: $15; (213) 972-7373.