By Alex Miller
A small black stage is basked in a single beam of calming light. Its current inhabitants are a microphone and a stool. But then, there is our hero’s story. His smile is one you cannot help but steal.
He enters stage right, whistling a tune we all wish we knew. David Cale is a middle‑aged tall and lanky Englishman. From certain angles, he looks like James Cromwell, and from others, he gives off a John Cleese feel. With a half‑ring of silver hair cradling his head from temple to temple, he is very much a man of his generation and background. His skinny gray jeans, black dress shoes, and loose‑fitting plaid shirt suggest a man familiar with style and the circuitousness of it. As he takes his place at the center of the black block of a stage, eight birdcages slowly ascend into the unknown of the rafters. Mr. Cale sings: “Canada Geese flying so high, how do they know? Where are they going?” His voice has a deep, soothing bass and a fine timbre reminiscent of the throaty call of a songbird.
David Egleton (a name he will give up, to his father’s chagrin) is a clever, precocious boy with a great love of birds. After saving several birds that someone had plucked and abandoned on the side of the road (one of the birds later dies), he quickly converts his family’s shack into a makeshift aviary and goes on to adopt 300 birds, representing as many breeds as Luton, his little section of the English isle, will allow.
His mother Barbara is a gentle soul who encourages her son to do what he wants. Early on, she learns that he is gay but never mentions it.
David’s father Ron comes from a well‑to‑do family who owns a hat factory. He is an alcoholic and a homophobe. It is assumed that David never comes out to his father.
David’s younger brother Simon is the kind of lonesome child only a mother can appreciate because the world pays no attention to him. He collects model airplanes and loves the Beatles.
Very early on, we learn that Luton is not the type of place one really leaves. Lutonites typically live, go to school, work, and die in this place. And very few people ever deviate from this pattern, although everyone wishes they could. Barbara and David, especially.
As tensions grow in the family, and as David’s father’s alcoholism gets worse, we cannot expect what comes next. Whoever prefers not to know should stop reading now.
Barbara, while getting ready to begin her day, gets bludgeoned to death by her husband. Embodying his own mother, Mr. Cale, incredibly, reenacts an event that most of us would rather die than recreate. He recalls the blood filling her mouth, her getting carried to the bathtub, still alive. It wasn’t a quick death. But Ron’s prison stay was – less than three years, thanks to his dream team of lawyers, for the murder of his wife. From then on, David is thrust into a dreamlike state, which persists even after he makes his way to New York. Through years of sadness, pressure, and heartache, he feels like his life cannot be his own. Even while singing “Mack the Knife” in front of his childhood idol Liza Minnelli, David cannot believe that this is his life.
“We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” lives up to its name. Every member of Mr. Cale’s family and, eventually, he himself, will perish. But if you see this musical comedy/drama (bring a tissue and your sense of humor), its story will continue to live through you and others. Mr. Cale delivers a performance that would be impressive even if only considering how he becomes each character. He puts on and takes off a persona like a nightgown. And when he sings, his physicality is free‑flowing and uninhibited. The six‑piece orchestra opens up another dimension of a play that is already in its own orbit, making it that much more lovely, visceral, tragic, beautiful. It is truly a play you must experience, because we’re only alive for a short amount of time, and you haven’t lived until you’ve see this 85‑minute play.
“We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time”
Written and Performed by David Cale
Directed by Robert Falls
June 13 – July 14, 2019
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York City 10003
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.