You’ve heard this before, right? Rock band begins to fray at the edges; the personalities clash, and the label dumps them; the drummer’s dad is busted for torturing women in a dungeon . . .
“No” to that last part?
That’s the bridge too far in “Rock Bottom: A Rock Opus,” a consciously sleazy new show from Landless Theatre Company. If there is not yet a genre called garage-band theater, there ought to be, and this would be a serviceable sample (especially because the theater space at the District of Columbia Arts Center is about the size of a garage). It’s cast with young-ish musicians who play the original songs with commitment and a decent skill level, and who act like garage-band musicians, meaning lots of profane sarcasm and mumbling.
The surprise is how seriously the show takes the sicko plot, which is based on a novel, “Rock Bottom” by Michael Shilling. You figure it for camp as soon as you see the bass player with both of his eczema-plagued hands wrapped in bandages and as the band bangs at high decibels through opening songs with unprintable, but almost amusing, lyrics.
But after a few competent — if raunchy and faintly glum — songs by Landless artistic director Andrew Lloyd Baughman (who plays the moody frontman-sometime drummer), a twisted story of vulnerability and earnest suffering takes over. The main character is Darlo, the drummer-singer whose utterly awful parentage has doomed him to violent tendencies and intimacy issues that are disturbing even in Amsterdam (where this band, Blood Orphans, is cracking up).
Shilling and Baughman, who co-wrote the book, find themselves in a weird zone. It’s not impossible to feel glimmers of sympathy for these extreme figures, especially since Darlo is played by Vaughn Irving with a compelling level of complexity. But the combination of shock value and tenderness forces them to bridge a lot of emotional ground, and they haven’t found the tone — that of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” or whatever it may be — that will help them do it.
Positive shout-outs: Talia Segal as the folksy singer-songwriter brightens things considerably in the second act with some of her own material. Baughman sings with gruff authority as the spacey frontman. Maia Henkin is a prostitute with perspective. But at two hours with intermission, “Rock Bottom” is a long, overcomplicated breakup.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Baughman, book by Baughman and Michael Shilling, additional material by Talia Segal and Shilling. Directed by Melissa Baughman. About 2 hours. Scenic design, Jared Davis; production design, Melissa Baughman. With Jack Sossman, Judith Baicich, Tom Jackson, Theodore Vossler and Laura L. Fontaine. Through Sunday at the District of Columbia Arts Center,
2438 18th St. NW. Visit landlesstheatrecompany.org.