You can’t blame a girl for trying. And nobody can say Ally Sheedy isn’t trying her best as Hedwig, the hapless East German rocker of confused sexual identity in the Off Broadway phenom “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” now in its second year at the Jane Street Theater in the ultra-now meatpacking district.
But the psycho-sexual convolutions of the role — Hedwig is a boy who tried to become a woman, and ended up something in between — and its winkingly gauche glitter-rock theatricality prove an awkward fit for an actress best known for (and served by) her screen work. Sheedy’s valiant efforts ultimately result in something less than the fireworks necessary to ignite this singular show, essentially a one-man (or woman) rock ‘n’ roll musical comedy.
Full marks to Sheedy for the courage to brave the heavy vocal demands of the part, not to mention the spectacularly silly Xena-meets-Liberace getup in which she takes the stage, and the matching wig, a bleached “Braveheart” throwaway. In the softer songs, her voice has an aptly weather-beaten quality that recalls the cracked china sounds of Marianne Faithfull. But the wild and wildly varied rock score by Stephen Trask — which might remind you of everything from Nina Hagen to Public Image Ltd. to country rock — needs more powerful vocal chops than Sheedy possesses to do it full justice.
More crucially, Hedwig is a creation only a performer of naturally outlandish sensibilities can bring plausibly to life. And it’s simply easier for a male performer to suggest the inherent ironies of this transsexual manque, an angry young man-woman who lost most of a key appendage and gained something less than the superstardom and emotional succor he-she yearns for. (Only Sandra Bernhard comes to mind as a surefire femme interpreter.)
Sheedy, who recently scored an arthouse success with a striking performance in the cool, terrifically acted (but underwritten) “High Art,” is a natural screen actor — an introverted performer of small gestures and nuances. The preening Hedwig, by contrast, wears her heart and other pertinent organs on her sequined sleeve. Although Sheedy struts and pontificates with the eagerness (and intentional awkwardness) of the supremely egotistical and mildly talented, it never comes across with the woozy grandeur and razor-edged desperation that John Cameron Mitchell (the role’s originator and author) supplied, and her vocal delivery is too flat for the long stretches of autobiographical monologue that link the songs.
It’s a pity, because one senses that Sheedy feels a real affection for the role. The actress has, after all, taken her share of hard knocks on the bumpy road beyond Brat Pack-dom. Like Hedwig, she surely knows the sting of hearing cheers greeting less-than-worthy former associates. But an emotional connection isn’t sufficient; this hard-rock tour of a life of hard knocks can’t really thrive with a soft core.