In an odd wrinkle of fate, the premiere of Book-It Repertory Theater’s “Jesus’ Son” at West of Lenin opened soon after the death of rocker Lou Reed.
A line in Reed’s “Heroin,” a Velvet Underground ode to the thrill and bleakness of addiction, provided the title for both this stage play and the Denis Johnson short story collection it is based on.
And the same song is hauntingly performed in the show by Annie Jantzer, whose potent renditions of apropos tunes adds immensely to the production’s woozy, dark-night-of-the-soul ambience.
Adapter Jeff Schwager and director Josh Aaseng had their work cut out for them, bringing these related yet discrete tales to the stage. They’ve avoided any whiff of addiction chic. The show admirably plunges you into a netherworld that is fierce and authentic-feeling. But they haven’t found the perfect blending of a string of episodes into a unified work of theatrical momentum.
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Johnson’s acute prose in “Jesus’ Son” supplies the dialogue here. It is spare yet poetic, sardonic yet sincere as his narrator, an aimless young drifter and addict, hurtles from drug to drug, debacle to screw-up, surrealistic escapade to harrowing hangover.
Addressed only by his profane (and unprintable) nickname, this wayward soul is played by a rumpled, sweaty Scott Ward Abernethy, looking like he’s been on a bender for weeks. His misadventures start (as does Johnson’s book) after hitching a ride with a family about to get into a deadly car crash.
A bizarre winter joy ride and a murder by a strange acquaintance follow. And funny-creepiest of all is a wild stint working as a hospital clerk — alongside an orderly pal (excellent Zach Adair), so zoned out on an unidentified cocktail of stolen meds, that he barely reacts when a man with a hunting knife lodged in his eye strolls into the ER.
Our vagabond finds something like love with a pretty young fellow addict (played by Sydney Andrews), but it’s a feverish, angry love that can’t win. And one last doozy of a freak-out lands our guy in a hospital for hard-core substance abusers.
All this is conveyed by a fluent, identity-shifting cast, slipping in and through a noir-esque lighting scheme by Kent Cubbage.
While the fine 1999 film version of “Jesus’ Son” beheld the lunacy of a zonked subculture with a kind of deadpan wonder, Schwager’s script fashions a crusty, philosophizing narrator (played by Kevin McKeon) to comment on what seems to be his mistfit younger self. It’s an awkward, distracting device.
At more than 90 minutes, with no intermission, the show feels too long. And one can admire Abernethy’s visceral engagement with his role, while wishing for fewer forays into loudly overwrought intensity. (Keeping his cool more might, paradoxically, add fire.)
There are times in “Jesus’ Son” when you may wonder why you’re spending time with this would-be loser and his lowlife compadres. Yet even in the vignettes that make your skin crawl (like a lurid peeping Tom episode), Johnson tosses us a moment of transcendence, a small flash of insight, a glimmer of hope or grace.
That’s one of the things that makes “Jesus’ Son” more than a William S. Burroughs or Hunter Thompson knock-off, and Johnson a special writer. At its best, Book-It captures those flickers in the darkness.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org