By Stanford Friedman
It is not clear why a play about a fundamental era in the history of Greenwich Village is being staged way up in a cabaret space on West 72nd Street, but there are bigger questions that need answering: What does Wikipedia have to do with dramatic structure? Does good singing trump bad acting? And how many times must bad puns fly, before they are forever banned? The answers, my friend, are too leaden to be blowin’ in the wind. But Search: Paul Clayton takes aim at them nonetheless.
Chances are you have never heard of the folk artist Paul Clayton (Peter Oyloe). His only real hit was Gotta Travel On and he was dead, a suicide, by age 36. But, from 1951 to 1961 he recorded 11 albums, became a mainstay of the Village folk scene, and acted as a mentor and drug supplier to a young Bob Dylan (Jared Weiss). This mostly real life account of their relationship, covering the years 1961-1965, has some famous names and a few famous songs, but is primarily a study in missed opportunities.
Playwright Larry Mollin refers to the show as a “wiki folk musical.” This is because he has structured the play along the lines of a Wikipedia entry. It is a disastrous decision for several reasons. First, he begins by providing a table of contents for what we are about to see, aided by a projection of Clayton’s actual Wikipedia page and an off-stage computerized and discordant voice that goes on to interrupt throughout the production. It means that Clayton and Dylan simply show up on stage together, with no sense of their initial reaction to each other. And it also means that there is quite a bit of pontificating and not a lot of showing; much reciting of facts, little sense of reality.
It is telling that Mollin is best known for having written and produced 128 hours’ worth of Beverly Hills 90210 episodes. Clayton never reveals any actual love for Dylan, just lots of lust. As a result, he becomes a bit of a creep, the guy who won’t take no for an answer and can’t resist the unattractive double entendre. I’ve never heard Manhattan quieter than in the moment when Oyloe holds for a laugh after uttering, “I’ve always been a sucker for a hot mouth organist.”
The one interesting and important question that Mollin does explore involves the definition of plagiarism. Folk music, by nature, involves borrowing melodies from those who came before. To Dylan, as long as he feels he has made the song “better,” anything is fair game. Clayton, though, feels scorned when Bobby usurps one of his songs on his way to famedom. It provides a few nice moments of tension. Oyloe has a lovely singing voice and the charismatic Weiss does well in keeping his Dylan impression from going overboard, but there is little chemistry, good or bad, between the two. This Dylan is too aloof for us to get inside of him, and this Clayton’s insides are too much a mess to want to examine for long.
Among the supporting cast, Ereni Sevasti shines in the roles of two of Dylan’s girlfriends, Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez. We see plenty Suze but not nearly enough of Joan, given her influence on Dylan. Sevasti’s one Baez number, The House Carpenter, leaves us wanting much more. The rest of the gang are solid musicians with limited acting chops. As Dave Van Ronk, Michael Lanning plays a mean guitar on his House of the Rising Sun solo, but is wooden without the instrument in his hands. And the fine jazz singer Alan Harris shows up as the blind gospel singer Reverend Gary Davis. And once he shows up, he sticks around for no apparent reason. Clearly, director Randal Myler, who wrote and directed two much more successful musicals of this ilk (Love, Janis and Hank Williams: Lost Highway), wants to get as much mileage from Myler as he can, including a lengthy feel good curtain call with him and Sevasti leading the way into This Land is Your Land. Clayton’s version of the Woody Guthrie classic was the first to make it onto the national charts. That’s never explained in the play, but just ask Wikipedia.
Search: Paul Clayton, the Man Who Loved Bob Dylan – Written by Larry Mollin, Directed by Randal Myler.
WITH: Peter Oyloe (Paul Clayton), Jared Weiss (Bob Dylan), Ereni Sevasti (Suze, Rotolo, Joan Baez), Jaime Babbitt (Carla Rotolo), Allan Harris (Rev. Gary Davis), Michael Lanning (Dave Van Ronk) and Kristina Kinsman (Computer Voice).
Musical direction by Fred Mollin; scenic design by Jack Corso; projection design by Petra Lent McCarron, costumes by Cynthia Bermudes, lighting and sound by Shannon Epstein; Jana Llynn, production stage manager. Produced by Dan Whitten and TIGER Theatricals at the Triad Theater, 158 W. 72nd Street. (800) 838 3006, http://stage72.com. Through Thursday, May 21st. Running time: 100 minutes. One intermission, two drink minimum.