'We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
David Cale in 'We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time'
All the more reason to rush out and see this deeply touching stage memoir.
7/14/2019

David Cale's acclaimed autobiographical solo musical, first seen at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, receives its NYC premiere.

If you've seen David Cale in any of the numerous one-man shows he's performed over the last few decades, you may think you know him pretty well. You don't. His new autobiographical solo musical receiving its New York City premiere reveals him in a whole new light. The heartbreaking We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time finds this talented writer-actor digging into his past so intensely, so intimately, you'll at times feel tempted to turn away.

With a score co-written by Cale and Matthew Dean Marsh (the latter also serving as musical director for the accompanying six-piece band), the piece chronicles Cale's childhood growing up in the industrial town of Luton, which, he acerbically informs us, was once voted "the ugliest city in England." As he relates it, the marriage between his father, Ron Egleton, and his mother, Barbara, both of whom worked at the local hat factory, was deeply troubled, exacerbated by Ron's alcoholism and abusiveness. (For reasons that soon become evident, Cale later changed his last name.)  

As illustrated in the charming opening song, "Canada Geese," Cale retreated into his own world, creating a "bird and animal hospital" and stocking it with whatever stray animals he could rescue. He also bred tropical birds, and was so reluctant to part with any of them that he eventually amassed hundreds.

The anecdote-driven tale seems not particularly distinctive at first. Cale describes his relationships not only with his parents but also his younger brother Simon, to whom he became a protector, and his wealthy but emotionally distant grandfather, whose fortune had something to do with the notorious criminals the Kray brothers. At various times he narrates the tale from different family members' perspectives, channeling several of them from the afterlife as if they were ghosts desperate to have their voices heard.  

One of the most charming segments describes Cale's mother taking him to see the movie Cabaret and lying about his age when purchasing tickets because it was for mature audiences. Afterward, they went out for dessert and ate lemon meringue pie. "This is the loveliest time I've ever had with my son," she tells us.

A sweet moment. But it's another quote from that fondly remembered conversation that will stick in your heart and mind long after the evening is over. "One day," Barbara tells her son, "you're going to realize the potential in me that never saw the light of day." That prophecy certainly comes true in the piece, which eventually brings up a shocking tragedy that occurred when Cale was still a teenager. The event, which would forever affect his life, turns this show into a deeply moving tribute to his mother.

The unprepossessing, balding Cale is no great shakes as a singer, and the songs feel more like musical fragments than fully formed numbers. But the score, coupled with Cale's soulful, impassioned delivery, casts a quiet spell, enhanced by the gorgeous chamber music arrangements played by musicians seen only in shadow.

Even when the proceedings turn markedly dark, the writer-performer invests them with a humor and humanity that make his individual story seem universal. You don't have to have dealt with an alcoholic loved one to cringe when he recalls the disastrous evening he took his father to see Liza Minnelli in concert. In a masterful segue, that painful anecdote leads to a climactic episode that reveals just how far Cale has come in overcoming his demons.

Sensitively staged with delicate minimalism by Robert Falls, the artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where the show had its premiere, We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time provides a frequently uncomfortable but ultimately joyous affirmation that we needn't be defined by our pasts.

Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Writer-performer and lyrics: David Cale
Music: David Cale, Matthew Dean Marsh
Director: Robert Falls
Set designer: Kevin Depinet
Costume designer: Paul Marlow
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Sound designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Musical director and arrangements: Matthew Dean Marsh
Presented by The Public Theater, Goodman Theatre