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Behind the music

Singing the blues in #14

by Bill Rodriguez

#14. By Rick Massimo. Directed by C.J. Racinski. With Bethany Geaber, David Tulli, John Petrella, Christopher Perrotti, Barbara McElroy, Ethan Vlah. At the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre through May 19.

[14] Pity the poor singer/songwriter. He or she is not as mistreated as a dancer, or as driven to solitude as a painter. Just under-appreciated enough to want to be called a Recording Artist if they ever get into a studio, but prey to jackals like no other creative artist if there's ever a whiff of money in the air. Rick Massimo has been a familiar musician on the Providence scene as well as a playwright, and in his play #14 we get the benefit of recording industry horror stories (and perhaps experiences) that could reduce musicians without the outlet of a word processor to rocking back and forth clutching their knees.

Elena Garrison (Bethany Geaber) is a dewy-eyed guitar-strumming songwriter with a couple of 30-buck gigs to her credit and not a lot of street smarts. We first see her being verbally wined and dined by Reggie Finn (David Tulli), who wants to be her manager. They are in the office of his co-conspirator, Nate Josephson (John Petrella), who is assisting in the seduction but is passively taking his cues from his fast-talking partner. They want a couple of grand from her, to pay for a professional demo and open-ended publicity costs, and in exchange they will get her work and make sure she doesn't have to worry about such things as club owners and finances. The kid is a hard bargainer, though: she insists on "complete artistic control" while they take care of the business side. They grin; she says she'll sign.

Our chipper songstress is no rube, she wants them to know. Elena asks if they don't mind if she runs the contract by a lawyer. Sure thing, way to go, they chirp back. They can even recommend a good entertainment lawyer. Barry Brinkman (Christopher Perrotti) aspires to be to shysters what Saddam Hussein is to tyranny -- a real pro. Not only does he continue to reel in their mark, he works his own sub-scam and gets control of her, and her career, without her even knowing.

With helpful understatement, Perrotti lets the lawyer's malevolent actions make their own impression rather than pumping up the evil. In one supporting scene, Barbara McElroy and Ethan Vlah depict recording company execs as pretentiously hyper and vapid, respectively. As for the leads, Geaber gives Elena a giddy fecklessness that's quite convincing; Petrella's Nate is wisely on simmer rather than boiling over at his many opportunities; and as Reggie, Tulli gives one of his trademark low-life loser performances that have been so entertaining over the years.

There are some nice touches in #14, such as when Elena is paid for the first gig Reggie finds for her, for more money; but after his 15 percent is deducted, she gets 25 cents less than she used to. Nate's optimistic rebuttal about there being "no second sets in American lives" aptly echoes F. Scott Fitzgerald's about second acts.

That remark connects to the title of the play. Reggie and Nate are has-beens. In their youth they were members of the Gaslights, a pop group whose only hit song rose to #14 on the Billboard charts and got them a recording contract. Unfortunately, the record label they signed with sat on their career in order to kill competition with another group the company handled, so their sole album went nowhere. Now Nate is reduced to penning dog food jingles, and Reggie is on the run from a shylock called White Francis. When it looks as though Elena's limited talent might actually lead somewhere, there's actually a chance they might go along for a profitable ride.

However, too many actions of these woebegone denizens suffer from credibility problems -- or, rather, we do. Early on, if you believe that Nate would respond with mere annoyance to Reggie selling his partner's recording equipment, I dare you to light that firecracker sticking out of Tony Soprano's back pocket. In important decisions here, characters change their minds mid-conversation, or mid-career, not out of urgencies we've been following or conflicts we witness but arbitrarily: Barry, supposedly a canny lawyer, sweetens a betrayal deal after his victim has already crumbled; Elena makes such a bizarre life decision at the end, after having been off-stage for maybe a third of the play, that I wondered if a Pod Person had returned.

With the story it has to tell, #14 might be a good, short one-acter if it were tightened up drastically and the characters were listened to instead of given marching orders. As it is, this play is like a lot of hopeful creative artists out there: it needs work.

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