‘We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time’ Theater Review: Memoir as Therapy

David Cale looks back a tragedy in his family and sings about it

we're only alive
Photo: Joan Marcus

If anyone had a good reason to change his name, it’s David Cale. Back in England, his name was David Egleton, then tragedy struck, and it struck so hard that he moved to the United States in 1979. Soon, Cale became an Off Broadway legend writing and performing in several one-person plays, among other works for the theater. Recently, he gave us the brilliant Patricia Highsmith-inspired murder story “Harry Clarke,” starring Billy Crudup.

If only Crudup or, better yet, Jake Gyllenhaal (because he can sing) were playing David Egleton in Cale’s new one-person autobiographical musical, “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,” which opened Thursday at the Public Theater. Cale plays himself in “Alive,” as well as his younger brother, mother, and father, who tells him, “You’ll never be a singer because you can’t sing.” Unfortunately, this disclaimer comes late in the show, and while it’s meant to show dad’s nastiness, the man is absolutely right. His son can’t sing.

Cale wrote the “Alive” score with composer Matthew Dean Marsh, and there are many soul-searching songs that sound every bit as graceful as the title “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time.” From Marlene Dietrich to Elaine Stritch, there have been great performers who can’t really sing but employ a style of vocalizing just to the left of recitative. They also tend to avoid vocally demanding stuff like “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Cale doesn’t go this route. He gives himself big arias in “Alive,” and there’s a stark rawness on display that some may find theatrically authentic. It may remind others of seeing a ballet where nobody on stage has been to class in months.

Even without the music, which often recalls a very earnest Michel Legrand, “Alive” is no “Harry Clarke” and Cale isn’t Crudup, who subtly made us aware of his character’s quirks from the get-go. Cale does drop a few hints of bad things to come in “Alive”: the maternal grandmother who sidelined as a prostitute, the father who talks about time in prison, the two sons who fear walking across the living room for fear they’ll leave footprints on the carpet — and then there’s a bombshell about the Krays. The audience at the Public let out barely a peep when Cale first mentioned these infamous British mobsters, and had to inform us who they were. The Krays reference tantalizes; regardless, there were early walk-outs at the performance I attended.

Cale tends to beatify himself. David Egleton here is an extremely caring older brother and an adoring son, who’s unbelievably loyal to his father and sounds just like his mother. (Cale’s differentiation of his characters isn’t always what it should be.) This young man even opens an animal hospital to care for orphan birds and turtles. Sometimes the British kitchen sink runneth over, and the drama gets bogged down until suddenly and unexpectedly tragedy pounces.

Cale has said that he avoided writing about this episode in his life because “I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me.” Of course, that’s the big attraction of “Alive.” We not only feel sorry but we’ve got the victim right there in front of us.

In this case, a little distance would be better. Cale is far more engaging as a writer and performer when he’s using his nightmares to create other characters, other situations. It’s the problem with so many hardship memoirs. Easy ironies and coincidences abound, especially regarding Cale’s idol Liza Minnelli, that wouldn’t be tolerated in fiction.

Robert Falls directs.