Like two disparate but equally intuitive solo musicians doing a special duets recording, Obie-winning writer-performers David Cale and Dael Orlandersmith create a kind of theatrical concept album in the Long Wharf world preem of “The Blue Album.” While the concept sometimes drifts and individual “cuts” vary in strength and weight, the end result has a haunting power that lingers in the mind.
At first the two sensibilities seem too iconoclastic to compliment each other. Cale is a gay, bald, wiry Brit whose emotions and loopy humor rest lightly on his body — which seems to be in the shape of a perpetual question mark. Orlandersmith is a centered, strong African-American woman, able both to convey and conceal on her own terms. Her body punctuation is a solid period.
But as they present their vignettes — sometimes riffing solo, sometimes with the other as a supporting character — you also feel what connects them. They find common ground in their poetic lyricism, their humor and their shared love of lost souls, estranged outsiders and vulnerable loners beaten down by racism, homophobia and marginalization. They show in subtle and profound ways that music can sometimes — but sometimes not — get them through the night, allowing escape from the neighborhoods, their fears and their lives.
The work is as if each artist thumbed through the other’s record collection, finding music references, snatches of song and lyrical moments that inspired in each other a series of characters, moments and moods. Sometimes these scenes are fully formed, often playing with gender and race; other times they’re just little downloads from life’s iPod, offering more attitude than narrative in this nonlinear work.
The show gets off to an uneven start, however, with a less-than-stellar story about Cale working in the ’70s at a London record store, where he is drawn to the boldness of a flamboyant gay man named Trevor with a penchant for the music of Liza, Barbra and Shirley Bassey. The piece, which Cale performs with a little too much nervous energy, lacks the sharpness, wit and nuance that later scenes provide.
But the show soon finds its groove.
“You tell me, where do I put alla this love?” asks country boy Willis when he finds that Dolly Parton’s songs of love just ain’t enough. A black R&B backup singer named Ruth is wounded when another black woman calls her act a minstrel show. A man explains that he is incapable of singing. A lonely woman (Cale) has a surprising affair with a sweet lug of a man (Orlandersmith).
In the best segments, an elderly Polish man recalls his encounter with Billie Holiday, with Orlandersmith playing both parts, while in another, Cale plays a man who has a similar brush with greatness on the beach with Judy Garland.
Neil Patel creates a spare blue set that resembles an anonymous hotel corridor filled with mysterious doors, art repros on walls and corners to nowhere, all lit with cool distance by Jennifer Tipton. At first, it may seem a strange (not to mention narrow) playing space, but as the work proceeds, the impersonal space becomes the perfect setting for these drifting characters, one of whom sings (as if for all of them): “You’re living in the world like it was somebody else’s house/But it’s not somebody else’s house/It’s yours.”
Cale is most adept in the singing department, with the mournful yet engaging voice he displayed in “Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky” last year Off Broadway. This time out John Gromada provides the appealing songs.
One longs for Cale and Orlandersmith to play opposite each other as characters of equal weight and not just act as support for each other’s turns. But like a savvy record producer who knows just how much to finesse from the booth, helmer Gordon Edelstein helps give theatrical shape to the piece and provide a safe haven for the artists. With continued work by the duo, “The Blue Album” could find a home on the pair’s home turf in Gotham.