What if there were a special corner of heaven — yeah, heaven — where dead rock stars could take a little time to get their, er, stuff together before facing eternity?
And what if that bit of heaven were like summer camp, and the Counselor (Alice Gibson) were God in Bermuda shorts, and the key campers, all of whom died at age 27, were Jim Morrison (Christopher Herring), Janis Joplin (Katie Jeffries) and Jimi Hendrix (David Samuel), gathered to greet a new arrival named Kurt Cobain (Josh Adams)? Cobain has just shot himself, so it must be April 1994. Cobain doubts this is heaven, and even if it is, he’s not crazy about the Counselor’s rules: no shouting, no fighting, no drugs, no sex. Bummer.
That’s the premise of Hunter Styles’s uneven but intriguing world-premiere one-act, “All Apologies,” its title taken from a Nirvana song. It is paired with the simpler, more solidly executed “Me and the Devil Blues” by Seamus Sullivan, which visits blues legend Robert Johnson in hell.
Both one-acts are presented by Flying V under the umbrella title “Unplugged.” The young troupe values originality, high energy and edginess, usually coupled with a genial dose of romanticism. Its show early this year, “The Pirate Laureate of Port Town,” demonstrated that. But these elements don’t jell in “All Apologies.”
Casting actors who can also sing in the style of the fabled rockers they’re playing has proved an obstacle for Jason Schlafstein, Flying V’s artistic director, who staged both one-acts. Adams as Cobain does a truly fine job portraying a guy in torment but falls short on singing, as do the other male cast members. Jeffries as Joplin sings pleasingly but not in Joplin’s throat-shredding style. As a would-be rocker and recent suicide who delivers afterlife pizza to her idols, Sarah Laughland covers Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” though probably in too nice a voice.
When the actors sound so little like the legends they’re playing, it pulls you out of the play. They cannot do justice, for example, to “Purple Haze” or “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” or “Break on Through.” During scene changes, when recordings of the actual rockers fill the air, that issue registers even more strongly.
Once Cobain has had a couple of soul-baring tantrums and finally bonded with his fellows, “All Apologies” seems about to end, but it doesn’t. Instead, it takes on an aimless quality from which it doesn’t quite recover.
After intermission, “Me and the Devil Blues” offers a blast of fresh energy. Playwright Sullivan has imagined a late-night talk show in hell, hosted by the grinning, oleaginous Devil himself (an excellent Kyle Encinas). Poor Robert Johnson (Samuel, in a much stronger portrayal than his Hendrix) is the only guest. The singer/guitarist, who, according to legend, sold his soul to the Devil to boost his talent, died in 1938 at age 27. Now Johnson languishes in a rut that he fails to comprehend. He sits on the sofa and chats with the Devil as a “guest,” then moves to the microphone and launches into a song (original music by Mark Halpern). Each, time he forgets the second verse and the Devil cuts him off. Then the whole pattern repeats.
“Me and the Devil Blues,” which debuted at the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival, is shorter, tighter and staged with more focus than “All Apologies.” It does more of what it sets out to do, both dramatically and even theologically — explore what awaits someone in a possible afterlife if he sells his soul for success in this one.
Flying V’s ambitious double bill may not be an unalloyed trip to heaven, but for adventurous theatergoers with 10 bucks to spare, it’s still a trip to the Beyond.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
Two one-act plays: “All Apologies” by Hunter Styles and “Me and the Devil Blues” by Seamus Sullivan. Directed by Jason Schlafstein. With Robert Christopher Manzo and Zachary Michel. Set design, Andrew Berry; costumes, Brittany Graham; lighting, Joe Musumeci; sound, Kenny Neal and Neil McFadden. Tickets: $10. About 21 / 2 hours, including intermission. Presented by Flying V through Sunday at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Visit www.flyingvtheatre.com.