David Cale's "The Redthroats" is an hour-long monologue about an alienated British lad who grows up in the sooty environs of London, suffers the endless bickering of his lower-class parents and drifts into the world of male prostitution before boarding a plane for America to become "a legend . . . like Judy Garland."
Bizarre as that may sound, "The Redthroats" is also a captivating little show, filled with sweetness and wonderment. The British-born Cale, who performs his own material, is definitely an original -- a jug-eared, vaguely goofy-looking man of 28. He plays all the characters in this saga of a troubled and squalid adolescence, inspired, in part, by his own. But he does so with an unassuming charm and a beguiling innocence that are difficult to resist.
A favorite in the performance art circles of Lower Manhattan, Cale is now taking his gifts to the road. On Wednesday, he opened a two-week engagement at the Studio Theatre, where he is very likely to make himself a host of new friends. By turns absurd, comic and surrealistic, "The Redthroats" is, above all, a fable about shedding the weight of the past, starting over, shaking up a life until all "the dead parts" fall out and only "the alive" is left.
Cale's alter ego is Steven Weird, a withdrawn youth who blots out the drabness of his family by shutting himself up in his room and singing along to his Judy Garland records. "It's not healthy," snaps his mother, "for an 11-year-old to listen to a dead woman sing." Mrs. Weird is forever complaining -- and not without reason. Her husband, a hat maker by trade, is a browbeaten failure. His only consolation in life is his "extensive collection of sparkling wines of the world," which he sips in the toilet while reading soft-porn novels.
"Why can't I have a home like ordinary people," whines Mrs. Weird. One day, she whines too much and all the murderous rage in Mr. Weird bursts to the surface. Steven escapes to London, pops a stick of gum in his mouth and discovers that "I swagger when I chew gum." As he's swaggering along King's Road, a blue Mercedes pulls over. "Inadvertently, direct contact was made." Steven has momentarily found a calling as a hustler.
Many a grim drama has been spun from such material. But Cale's unerring eye for the offbeat detail and his uncomplaining acceptance of the inadvertency of events give "The Redthroats" the flavor of a storybook fable. Cale seems as surprised as we are by the perversity of humans and the tangled strands of fate. But he is without rancor. Indeed, Steven bobs along, taking his ridiculous life as it comes. Hired as a backstage baby sitter for the orphans in "Annie," he discovers the moppets obey him only when he talks in a voice like Daffy Duck's. So he talks like Daffy Duck. You do what you have to do.
Later he buys himself a truck, drives to the beach in a cataclysmic storm. A flock of birds beats up against his chest, enters his body, actually possesses him. Suddenly he's dancing uncontrollably like a mad puppet. Maybe it's the birds that give him the idea to fly away to America. Or maybe it's because "all the legends live in America."
At any rate, in the final passages of "The Redthroats," he has boarded a Freddie Laker jet for the New World. A stewardess who reminds him of "Karen Black in 'Airport '75' " informs him that "reality is something you rise above." Halfway over the Atlantic he has a vision of his new self, the being who exists under all the encrustations of the past and who's waiting to get out. A golden spotlight frames Cale's face, alive with expectation. The plane lands. "Welcome to America," he says.
It's lovely, this tale of rebirth. Unlike Spalding Gray, with whom he is sometimes compared, Cale projects an enchanting simplicity in performance. Gray plunges headlong into the minutiae of existence, multiplying its ironic complexities. Cale distills and refines, arriving at a kind of exalting purity. Much of the time, he is seated on a chair, the sole prop he employs. A turn of the head, a drop in the voice, a shift of his position serve to indicate new characters, new locales. But the minimalism of the production is counterbalanced by his eagerness to communicate, by the amazement in his eyes -- always wide open and forever threatening to open even wider.
There is nothing slick about the performance. Cale isn't so much homely as he is improbable-looking, with his outsized and mismatched features. Self-tutored, he hasn't entirely shed the awkwardness of one who more or less stumbled into a career on the stage. But that only makes him all the more disarming. You sense early on that his saga of drift and redemption is the real thing.
Redthroats, he explains at the outset, are much-prized fish that gathered under the bridge in Steven's home town. But the rushing waters were also the abode of leeches. Standing in the stream, their green nets in hand, youngsters hoped to catch the redthroats, even as they feared the blood-sucking leeches. "And one day, the redthroats disappeared. They just went away," he tells us.
A kind of childhood paradise has been lost. Steven, too, is lost for a while and he'll have to confront other leeches. But his ingenuousness will protect him. They say you can never go home again. But, Cale suggests, you can go someplace else and start anew. America may not be that "somewhere over the rainbow" Judy Garland pined for. But, for Steven, it's the next best thing.
Cale's unquenchable optimism is vivifying. The Redthroats, written and performed by David Cale. Lighting, Carol McDowell. At the Studio Theatre through Dec. 13.