It's Christmas night, 2012, in Hell, otherwise known as a low-rent apartment building in a Los Angeles slum in Old: A Vaudeville Tragedy, written and directed by Matthew Posey, onstage at Ochre House.
Song and dance numbers, set to Justin Locklear's original score, perk this raw tale of aging alcoholics and delusional DJs, including a hilarious and bawdy hula-hoop number by a hooker in government-issue camouflage gear. The play is loosely based on the 1994 documentary, Shut Up, Little Man, about two guys who recorded and released on radio the tapes they made in the '80s of real-life arguments between their drunken neighbors in a San Francisco tenement.
Raymond (Justin Locklear) and Pete (Posey) are two broken old drunks who've lived together for years, although they despise each other. Most of their spastic energy is spent swilling vodka and shouting ugly obscenities, murderous threats and mustering up pitiful geriatric attempts to actually do physical harm to one another. Pete and his skinny, sad-faced lover Tony (Trey Pendergrass) have invited a collection of local whores, pimps and street people over because, well, it's Christmas.
The play opens with Raymond struggling to tuck his napkin in his shirt and helplessly stabbing his half-frozen TV dinner, then settling for a foot-tall martini shaken with a sudden tremor and stirred with a giant five-olive skewer. Then Pete comes in, red-eyed, staggering and balancing an equally clownish four-foot stack of dirty plastic bowls and dishes. He accuses Ray of stealing his Salisbury steak dinner, and a screaming fight ensues. The huge prop of dishes falls to the floor intact, and the old men start ranting and raging. Speaking in hoarse hard-breathing spasms and possessed by sudden twitches, Posey's Pete vacillates between collapsing into his bony frame and hoisting his joints into gear for yet another round of raging.
Locklear, a young actor, is astonishingly effective as a mean old man, alternating between sad hallucinations of a lost love of his past love and haranguing everybody and everything in his miserable present. When his lost love Lois (Cassie Bann) appears to Raymond in a dream and calls him a drunk, he tells her, "I'm not a drunk. I'm slowly poisoning myself. I have a purpose." That's true, too. He even plays the accordion in one circus-like dream sequence where he moves in and out of memory, an old man caving into dementia, or worse.
White-faced and bent nearly double throughout, Locklear's Ray nevertheless manages to attack his roommate with a fork, stuffing it in his belly just above belt level, where Pete insists it remain even after the hapless guests have pulled the vicious geezers apart. Eventually Pete plants a butter knife in Ray's back, after a stupidly arduous argument over a rent check. What makes these scenes painfully funny is the absurd, slow motion moves of the furious old men, both a hundred percent bloodthirsty, but neither more than ten percent effective. Talk about frustration made flesh.
Besides his ongoing diatribe against his roommate, Raymond's other source of fury is the so-called radio station broadcast every night from the apartment next door. Decades younger and damaged in different ways than their decrepit neighbors, the two younger men put on headphones, spin records, take requests and share a mutual delusion that their late-night program, "Suicide Watch Hour" is being heard further than the thin walls they share with the aging crazies.
Rupert the DJ (Christian Taylor) calls himself the Night Rider, swallows prescription drugs by the handful, and talks in a soothing voice to his imagined audience, he describes as "lonely, miserable, selfish, searching souls." Taylor's Rupert is a marvelously funny victim, pale and handsome and ineptly self-destructive. Rupert tries to phone his mother Gladys (Carla Parker), a hard-working whore who kindly offers a hand-job to her son's sleepy, beefy roommate Marty (Dante Martinez). When Rupert calls her a "whore of a mom," she hangs up on him. Gladys has other tricks to turn in this surprising plot.
Taylor and Martinez, tucked tightly into an extension of the stage throughout, add another layer of humor to the play, as Rupert keeps the records spinning, or moves stage center to belt out an Elvis style "Come All Ye Faithful." When Pete and Raymond are trying to kill each other with tableware, we hear the dulcet tones of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." Help.
The men in the show lead deranged and chaotic lives, lost in booze and drugs. Love does shine an occasional happy light on this otherwise darkly comic vision. The women drifting in and out of the apartment are much more stable and generous than the men they engage. Even the tough hooker and the simple-minded street girl are willing to smile and give a guy a break, and none of the women ever whine about being exploited or used.
The show ends more with a whimper than a bang, but that would seem to be the natural trajectory of the lives depicted in this dark, disturbing play.