Taxman/Stylagi … Larry Block
Joe/Mel … Barton Heyman
Stylagi … Peter Appel
Journalist … Ellen McElduff
Well, things just keep getting stranger and stranger down at the Public Theater. In a season there that has featured its measure of randy queens, now comes a randy King, in the person of weird Christopher Walken’s Elvis, undergoing the nuttiest gender switch since Mandy Patinkin was surgically turned into a grandmother in David Hare’s “The Knife” eight years ago under this same roof. Come back, Mandy, all is forgiven!
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. “Him” is Walken’s meditation on Elvis, mythmaking, tabloid fame, life in the sort-of-hereafter, Frank Sinatra, L. Ron Hubbard and probably a number of other things, too. Some of it is engaging, a lot is long-winded (maybe even more than a lot, though it’s hard to tell because much of it was impossible to hear). Some of it is amusing, though to be honest, such moments come infrequently in an evening that seems a good deal longer than it actually is.
Don’t look to this actor/author for congruity. The show opens with a pair of shadowy Elvis impersonators at an L-shaped luncheonette counter midstage, an Elvis figure atop a casket at stage right and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” rag on the loudspeakers (despite the presence upstage of a rock quartet that has been playing quite respectably).
The figures turn out to be Him (Walken) and Bro (Rob Campbell), who announces , “I am your dead stillborn twin.” Forget the redundancy; the point soon becomes evident that while Elvis has lingered in limbo these past 18 years, Bro has been doing all those mischievous things that the supermarket tabs love to tout — visits to Mars, appearances in the desert and the like. To the devoted — and you know who you are — this will seem perfectly plausible, as Elvis really did have a twin who died at, or shortly after, birth.
At several points, a giant, bloated foam-rubber Elvis is tossed about; during one episode, Him admits, “I have little doubt the jelly-and-water diet was detrimental to my health, mostly due to the lack of doughnuts.” Walken’s delivery is so offhand that some will undoubtedly think it’s a lazy performance. But this is no Elvis impersonation — there are more odd Yiddishisms than “thangs” sprinkled throughout.
It’s a meditation in which Walken effectively establishes a casual relationship with the audience, constantly commenting on what’s going on. Getting to the core of “a vast enterprise like me,” Him describes the transfer of power between seductive performer and audience to a reporter from Vanity Fair (one of several roles played by Ellen McElduff):”It gets me, I got it, I give it to you.”
Walken’s into that exchange too, cultivating an almost conversational tone in the show. And some crackling lines add at least a little lettuce to the baloney:”He had a Mexican standoff with eternity,” a characters says, “and eternity blinked.”
In the final scenes, Him fakes his death and is whisked away to a clinic in the Atlas mountains to undergo half a sex-change operation. He returns as a sweet, round waitress in the aforementioned diner, befriended by a local who finds himself carnally drawn to Him. The sight of Walken in chesty, dowdy drag is a vision not soon forgotten.
The production is loose-jointedly staged by James Simpson and smartly designed by Kyle Chepulis, who keeps the set spare but juices up the lighting with candy colors, strobes and brilliant whites. Franne Lee’s costumes are consistently funny.
The Public sort of pulled a fast one here:”Him” began performances a week late in December and didn’t invite critics until a few days before its Jan. 8 closing. It feels like a workshop and should have been labeled as such, but it’s also the most giddily spontaneous show featuring a cast of more than one that the Public has had yet. Walken dedicates the play to Joseph Papp, who’s doubtless out there in limbo with Him, enjoying the joke.