By Stanford Friedman
Have you ever been to a bar where someone is being hilarious, but that someone is also, clearly, a self-destructive alcoholic? It is that kind of dark dichotomy that powers Dan Ruth’s monologue cum memoir of being a drunk and an enabler, A Life Behind Bars. The show has been on an impressive crawl, with stops at The Abrons Center and Dixon Place, before being named Best Autobiographical Show at The United Solo Festival, last October. Final call for this staging at the Laurie Beechman is coming up, with one more performance left on May 17.
For Ruth, bars are not bastions of cheery comradery. Having worked and patronized a slew of them in Manhattan and Brooklyn, they are little purgatories where a health inspector can ruin your day, burgeoning hipsters wave for service using their selfie sticks, and one night stands come adorned with pentagram chest tattoos. Director Tanya Moberly ably steers Ruth through seven interconnected vignettes where he sometimes plays himself, and other times morphs into the miserables who order his drinks while haunting his psyche. With his odd, throaty voice and nondescript manor, it is hard to get a grasp on the man, but that somehow makes the characters he inhabits all the more memorable. Already I am incorrectly remembering that there was a cast of three supporting players.
First, there’s that health inspector, the most purely comic of his creations, who comes calling with a long list of potential violations. Then there is Sarah, the old gal from Long Island, in for a show and numerous cocktails. The way she mutters “blastoff” to herself before gulping down her first drink is quietly heartbreaking. And there is Brayden, a street punk that Ruth can’t keep his hands off of. Their heated embrace, and its meaning, is the night’s most pointed moment, all the more effective for being performed by a single actor.
Ruth’s view of New York in his heyday, the 1990’s through the early 2000’s, is neither glamourous nor especially painful. The effect of the AIDS epidemic is nowhere to be seen here, and 9/11 is just a glancing blow, though one that marks a lengthy and nearly fatal binge. Meanwhile his biggest celebrity sighting is Dom DeLuise, and the Broadway show he chooses to satire is Dance of the Vampires. Indeed, Ruth is nothing if not a disseminator of obscure references. Flying over the heads of the audience were mentions of Mickey Rourke, The Dead Kennedys, Shields & Yarnell and some horror movies quotes beyond my own recognition. He is also a chronicler of the Hell’s Kitchen that is no more. Though the show offers no visual clues to identify any of his hangouts, just hearing him reminisce about former hotspots like Curtain Up!, Cleo’s and Rachel’s will bring beery tears of remembrance to a decent percentage of the Beechman clientele.
A Life Behind Bars – Written and performed by Dan Ruth; directed by Tanya Moberly.
Abby Judd, technical operator; Tim Lozada and Dan Ruth, sound design. The Laurie Beechman Theatre at the West Bank Café, 407 W 42nd St. $20 Cover charge and $20 food or drink minimum per person. (212) 695-6909, https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/968687. May 17th at 9:30PM. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.