It may not be a full album, but it has a couple of great tracks. “Len, Asleep in Vinyl,” Carly Mensch’s enthusiastically slight new play about musicmakers, makes good on its small ambitions quickly, quirkily and with considerable style. Mensch’s slick dialogue is an excellent match for Jackson Gay’s offbeat directorial style, and the playwright’s fisheye-lens characterization keeps things interesting even when the plot stalls. Leads Michael Cullen and Daniel Eric Gold make potentially unbearable characters easy to like with excellent turns as a disappointed punk rock father and a shy hipster son, respectively.
The reasons to take a producing risk on the relatively untried Mensch are apparent from the first few moments of “Len”: the title character (Cullen) and his unlikely offspring Max (Gold) articulate their badly bruised relationship in a number of bizarre and inventive ways, starting when Len snatches away Max’s cell phone and crams it into his mouth.
When he’s had a chance to calm down, Len, who is on a sort of vacation from life at his woodland cabin, explains himself: “I don’t want that thing ringing in the middle of the night. Calling out into the darkness. Like that book.”
“The book that goes ring in the night?” asks an exasperated Max.
“‘Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret,'” explains his father.
Judy Blume is not the sum total of Len’s cultural knowledge, but she may represent the pinnacle of his maturity: a brilliant record producer and a survivor of the hedonistic ’70s rock scene, Len longs for a time when rock stars “did liquid Vicodin and killed their girlfriends in cheap hotels.” He’s become a shadow of his former self after winning a prestigious music award for flooding the nation’s record stores with pop pap “performed” by an eye-candy ear irritant named Zoe (Megan Ferguson), who shows up to pester him and flirt with Max.
The problem is that Zoe and Max are the people Len is trying to escape — they remind him of his regrets, which is why he holed up in the cabin in the first place. After briefly attempting to socialize, Len goes AWOL and leaves Max to wrangle Zoe and start searching for him, which prompts Max to call in reinforcements in the form of his nutty mom Isabelle (Leslie Lyles).
Isabelle is one of those women who probably used to look like a million dollars tax-free and talk like a Raymond Chandler novel. Her frank confrontations with Zoe (“I can see your tits.”) and Len are among the funniest moments in the play and suggest that a whole second act might be possible. Maybe even a third.
Ultimately, though, Mensch is more interested in Len and Max’s relationship, though she’s not sure which of them deserves the play’s focus. At first, it seems to belong to everyman Max, but the end of the show (and the title) suggests this is Len’s story, which would be easier to believe if he wasn’t offstage for nearly 20 of the play’s 70 minutes.
In Len’s absence, Max is given a chance to dominate, and to present himself as the world’s only endearing hipster. Mensch has gone to great lengths to make his us forgive his basic uselessness, and his quest to earn his dad’s approval with his new “literate indie folk” record (“We’re really careful about not being twee”) is touching, especially in contrast to the efforts of William (Dan McCabe), a local high schooler with similar designs on Len, whom he idolizes.
Strangely, it’s the epilogue, not the denouement, that steals the thunder from “Len, Asleep in Vinyl.” It’s confusing to see Len come to an epiphany while Max wanders off unfulfilled, but it’s also in keeping with other moments in the play that belie the mature professionalism in Mensch’s surefooted dialogue.
The structure here is shaky, but that can be easily fixed with more experience as Mensch continues working. As much fun as “Len, Asleep in Vinyl” is, it’s an EP at most. But it suggests a killer breakout record in the works.