Lazarus carries with it a lot of expectation. Before its opening at New York Theater Workshop, it sold out its initial dates in three hours – a sales record for NYTW, which has already extended the run, twice. If the show doesn’t quite succeed in raising the dead, it does at least boast a helluva holy trinity as its artistic team: David Bowie joins forces with Tony-winning playwright Enda Walsh and Ivo van Hove, theater’s most in-demand director of the moment (Antigone, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, this season alone). Adding to the celestial glow, the cast is anchored by the divine Michael C. Hall (of Dexter fame and Hedwig and the Angry Inch).
But let’s face it; Bowie is the big box office draw here, and whether Lazarus resurrects your faith in his creative godhead or has you squirming through a damnably obtuse evening will depend on how willing you are to watch what is essentially one big pop song written for the stage. Lazarus attempts a form of allusive storytelling that relies on the lyrical and imagistic – and the listener’s emotional connection with these – for meaning.
Given the show’s creators, this ought to be a liberating conceit, but the story, co-written by Bowie and Walsh, demands constantly to be taken seriously, with a backstory provided by Walter Tevis’ 1963 sci-fi novel “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” We pick up the thread of Thomas Newton (Hall), the alien played by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s cult film of the same; he’s still unable to return to his home planet, alone, unhappy and mostly drunk. He’s also hallucinating, so it’s unclear if his current trajectory – which has him collide with an old friend, Michael (Charlie Pollock), an opportunist masquerading as his personal assistant, Elly (Cristin Milloti) and the Mephistophelian Valentine (Michael Esper), as well as a trio of harpies (inexplicably named Teenage Girl in the script) who function as the chorus and an angelic Girl come to save him (Sophie Anne Caruso) – takes place in any dimension of reality or only in his head.
That sounds fairly risible, and it is, frankly, like the content of many a pop song. Yet Hall’s Newton is handsome and endearing, especially in his tender interactions with the Girl (possibly his daughter, we learn), and Bowie and Walsh seem to want us to really feel for him and pity his terrible fate. Fittingly perhaps for a play entitled Lazarus (and although the New Testament allusion is never explained), there’s not an iota of irony in the whole show except, perhaps, for Valentine’s name; you just have to believe or the illusion crashes.
If it crashes for you (and it did for me), what if the solution was to listen to Lazarus as the vague, angsty, slightly ridiculous rock anthem it seems to be singing? There’s matter for this at least; Lazarus takes shape around a constellation of Bowie hits: “This is not America,” “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Life on Mars,” “All the Young Dudes,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Changes” and “Heroes” are all here, but in smooth new arrangements by Henry Hey (performed by a seven-piece band on sax, trombone, guitar, bass, synthesizer, keyboard and drums). These Bowie classics, plus one new song, entitled (obviously) “Lazarus,” are delivered by some tremendous vocal talent: Hall, Esper (The Last Ship), Millioti (Once) and the young Caruso, along with the entire cast.
But if Hey’s introspective mood for these mega-hits is in keeping with Newton’s dilemma, it also feels at times like the music has had all the wind knocked out of it. Functioning as narrative devices in the show’s slick musical format, the songs also take on a jarring literalism, as when Elly belts “Changes” while changing clothes, or when, in the show’s most dispiritingly false note, Newton and the Girl pantomime dolphins swimming, in big playful bellyflops, while singing from “Heroes”: “I, I wish you could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”). A man seated next to me hid his eyes in an embarrassed cringe during that scene.
Which brings up van Hove’s contribution to the production, as well as that of his close collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, whose sets always work in tandem with van Hove’s intentions. Dolphin dancing aside (if possible!), the direction and design provide some blessed relief, a jolt back to life. Versweyveld’s minimalistic, champagne-toned set for Newton’s monastic apartment is framed by a simple bed and an equally spartan fridge but opens expansively on the world both real and imagined, outside Newton’s apartment and gin-rattled mind. This is possible through a giant TV screen that serves as a portal into Newton’s fantasies and Tai Yarden’s videos capes of New York and Berlin, which provide urban backdrops to the action but also wash or bleed (there is a lot of blood spilled in the story) over the set. In one marvelous moment, Valentine prepares himself for more deadly work and suddenly grows enormous black wings of (video) smoke that engulf the entire theater and cloak us also in his evil.
In contrast to Versweyveld’s thick atmospheric strokes, Van Hove’s direction trains a magnifying glass over the slightest details, amplifying the actors’ gestures and expressions. Milloti’s Elly is more a stick figure than a woman, given to awkwardly pointed, disarticulated movements. Hall’s stage presence is mesmerizing but Milloti is a live wire and fascinating to watch as she totters and pivots and angles across the stage. In contrast, the Teenage Girls and Valentine glide with reptilian ease through the glass and steel spaces of Versweyveld’s two-tiered set, where the band is housed behind a glass wall, as if they, too, were in the heavens. Van Hove’s meticulous arrangements of the actors in the big impersonal space of an unforgiving city heighten Newton’s isolation, but never give us reason to care about him either.
Is Newton a Lazarus of sorts, called to be reborn to life on his home planet? If that’s the hyperbolical premise, it falls flat in practice. But so what if the story has a predictable end? That, too, is in keeping with the rest of the production. As good as pop/rock music can be, it appeals, not for any shock factor, but because of its reliable hooks and generic tropes. Bowie challenged the genre with his art-rock aesthetic and his songwriting method, using random word selections and arrangements to let feeling trump meaning . Lazarus seems to content itself with the genre’s formulas and Bowie’s narrative style but it’s not enough to elevate the show to more than the sum of its parts: an earnest rehash of a remake of a novel by the remake’s star with the star’s music as a premise for the action. Also, there’s a reason more sci-fi tales don’t make it to theater, the form is less forgiving than fiction of the genre’s excesses and less adept than film at turning them into “reality”.
Incredibly, for a work marshaling so much talent (there’s also a freaky cameo appearance by Alan Cumming) and exciting so much anticipation, Lazarus lacks inspiration of all things, and that’s the hardest thing to forgive here. Perhaps, it will die quietly before enjoying a better life in another iteration, or on another planet.