'Carson McCullers Talks About Love'

The words, songs and performance of this one-woman musical, starring Suzanne Vega, don't yet combine into a convincing whole.

Folk-pop singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega admits to a longtime fascination with Carson McCullers, the Southern Gothic novelist whose bio provides plenty of spicy material for “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” Vega’s solo show supplemented with songs written in collaboration with Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”). But the words, songs and performance of this one-woman musical don’t yet combine into a convincing whole.

Georgia-born McCullers, who burst onto the best-seller list in 1940 as the 23-year old author of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and was known along Broadway and in Hollywood for the award-winning drama “The Member of the Wedding,” specialized in characters who didn’t fit into the society around them. Vega draws McCullers as one who unquestionably fits that classification. (“You have heard that I am a destroyer, cannibalistic, carnivorous, an emotional vampire, a viper, a lesbian… and it’s all true!”) An early bout with rheumatic fever presaged a sickly life, with a stroke leaving the writer partially paralyzed for the final 20 of her 50 years.

This didn’t prevent a hectic sex life, with multitudinous lovers of both genders. We hear plenty about this, including linkups with icons Greta, Gypsy and Marilyn. Much of the tale centers upon the bisexual Reeves McCullers, whom Carson marries at 20, divorces, and remarries; when Reeves decides to commit suicide in 1953, he tries to convince Carson to join him but she demurs.

Vega starts and ends the one-act as herself. After introducing her subject and laying out bottles of gin and sherry, she sits at a makeup table and transforms herself into the authoress. (An unobtrusively paralyzed left hand indicates when she is McCullers.) Evening consists of a string of monologues uneasily mixed with a dozen songs, the music credited jointly to Vega and Sheik.

Several of the songs — “Song of Annamarie,” “We of Me,” “Carson’s Last Supper” — are effective, but most seem to serve simply as a break from the narrative. Others don’t register, including one in which the heroine sees fit to complain about novelist Harper Lee (“I’d like to kill more than just that mockingbird”) without quite explaining why.

Joe Iconis (“Things to Ruin”), a distinctive Off Broadway composer in his own right, not only plays the piano but also serves as foil to Vega’s McCullers, reading dialogue in various character voices. Completing the onstage triangle is guitarist Andy Stack, who does an especially fine job with the solo ukulele accompaniment to “We of Me.”

The eccentric McCullers provides plenty of material for mining, and Vega is clearly intrigued by the possibilities. But clarity is precisely the problem. Vega is highly accomplished on the concert stage, and likable in her stage acting debut; based on her showing here, she could step into the musical comedy field with ease. But “Carson McCullers Talks About Love” comes across as the musings of a talented and personable songwriter in need of a strong playwright and director to make sense of it all.

Carson McCullers Talks About Love

Rattlestick; 99 seats; $55 top

Production

A Rattlestick Playwrights Theater presentation of a musical in one act with music by Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik; additional music, Michael Jefry Stevens; book and lyrics by Vega. Directed by Kay Matschullat. Music direction, Gerry Leonard.

Creative

Sets, Louisa Thompson; costumes, Jessica Pabst; lights, Lenore Doxsee; sound, Nick Kourtides; production stage manager, Melissa Mae Gregus. Opened May 5, 2011, reviewed Apr. 30. Runs through June 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Carson McCullers - Suzanne Vega
Musicians - Joe Iconis, Andy Stack
Musical numbers: "Iron Butterfly," "Twelve Mortal Men (Where I'm From)," Love Letters," "New York Is My Destination," "Song of Annemarie (Terror, Pity, Love)," "Instant of the Hour After," "Harper Lee," "Miss Amelia's Song," "We of Me," "Wunderkind," "Lover, Beloved," "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," "Carson's Last Supper (Agape Love Feast)"

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