How to Listen to Rock ’n’ Roll in a Theater

NEW YORK — American playwrights have always gone after the big game roaming our society. Yet unlike, say, sports or religion, rock ‘n’ roll — which also aims for transcendence, and dominated a good chunk of the 20th century — remains woefully underexplored on stage.

Posted Updated

, New York Times

NEW YORK — American playwrights have always gone after the big game roaming our society. Yet unlike, say, sports or religion, rock ‘n’ roll — which also aims for transcendence, and dominated a good chunk of the 20th century — remains woefully underexplored on stage.

Of course, there have been rock musicals, from “Hair” to “Passing Strange,” but plays rarely if ever consider the music’s gut-level impact and social importance. This makes the presence of two shows tackling rock, both at the Under the Radar Festival, all the more surprising. And both approach the subject from the listener’s perspective: “How to Be a Rock Critic” looks at the making of a passionate gonzo writer, while “The Hendrix Project” zooms in on concertgoers.

“Rock Critic” is a surprisingly straightforward solo piece about Lester Bangs, the logorrheic journalist who redefined music-writing in the 1970s and ‘80s, and was memorably portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film “Almost Famous.” The playwrights, Jessica Blank (who also directs) and Erik Jensen (who also stars), have experience in documentary theater, having created “The Exonerated,” and it shows: They smoothly incorporate excerpts from Bangs’ writings and anecdotes pulled from various sources, including Jim DeRogatis’ biography “Let It Blurt.”

That very smoothness, however, makes the show at odds with the messiness that Bangs seemed to thrive on — and lived in, judging by set designer Richard Hoover’s realistic pigsty of an apartment.

We meet Bangs in the middle of a bout of writer’s block, procrastinating while on deadline for a review. But the show quickly abandons the sausage-making perspective on criticism to focus on Bangs’ life and his relationship with rock, the two so intertwined as to be indistinguishable.

Jensen’s Bangs is a shaggy, complicated, likable man who tries to confront the dark side of the music he loves. The show suggests that Bangs’ approach — his immersive writing style anticipated the current passion for the all-sharing I — was fueled by his desire to make music, not just chronicle it. But overall the portrait does not coalesce into much of a point.

More energetic staging might have helped pull us into Bangs’ world. After he praises a Troggs song for “blasting you through the wall, out across the rooftops, straight outta your box into perfect release in a troposphering limbo of blizzardnoise at last,” he plays the track, but at a meek 3 instead of the necessary “Spinal Tap” 11. That scratch does not soothe the rock ‘n’ roll itch.

At least the BRIC House theater’s sound system delivers the necessary volume at “The Hendrix Project.” But then unlike the wordy “Rock Critic,” this show tackles the transformative power of music without a single line of dialogue.

Roger Guenveur Smith follows up plays like “A Huey P. Newton Story” and “Rodney King” with another look at an epoch-making African-American man — but this time his subject is offstage, glimpsed only through grainy videos. What we watch is a dozen 20-somethings who, in turn, are watching Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969. The cast members look down at the audience in a scenic device not unlike the one in Annie Baker’s play “The Flick.”

Perched on set designer Levi Lack’s rendering of the Fillmore’s mezzanine, the actors are motionless, unsmiling as the music booms around them. This goes on for quite a while. Gradually, they begin to shake off the stillness in Robert Wilson-esque slow motion, still intently staring ahead.

The discrepancy between the deliberate movements and Hendrix’s extroverted guitar freakouts is startling, and part of the achievement of Smith, who conceived and directed the show: the evocation of an audience’s internal world, as they go from fascinated befuddlement (Hendrix played mostly new material at the Fillmore, as he was introducing his new combo, Band of Gypsys) to euphoria.

Archival footage of Hendrix appears on a screen, flanked by disparate images: war scenes, jellyfish, military parades. These projections are not all that necessary, and the focus remains firmly on the concertgoers, who eventually begin flirting, smoking and drinking; every so often, some slink into the sound booth in the back and canoodle against the window.

Smith tries to freeze-frame a moment in American history. Some of the concertgoers were likely bound for Vietnam, others were or would be involved in the feminist struggle or the black-liberation movement. Nothing much happens: It’s just some people at a show. But the moment is suffused with both elation and unease: A decade was ending, and less than a year later, Hendrix would be dead.

— Event Information:

“How to Be a Rock Critic”

Through Monday at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time 1 hour, 25 minutes.

“The Hendrix Project”

Through Sunday at BRIC House, Brooklyn; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour.

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.