BWW Review: Bold I'LL GET YOU BACK AGAIN at the Round House Theatre
With its emphasis on both 1960s psychedelic rock music and The Three Stooges, it would seem the latest offering at the Round House Theatre was tailored precisely for my taste.
Add to that the guy who in my mind had the single best moment in this summer's "Twin Peaks: The Return," David PatRick Kelly (who as the sojourning Jerry Horne was shocked to see his appendage tell him, in a high pitched voice, "You are not my foot!"), and I almost suspect playwright Sarah Gancher trolling me like a Google Ad algorithm.
But there's even more in her fearless and kaleidoscopic "I'll Get You Back Again," which includes passages on life and death, rock music and whether standup comedy is its current equivalent, along with the usual theatrical ghosts of family, death, guilt and resolution.
There have been a number of versions of "I'll Get You Back Again" so far, in its various readings, though the impressive Round House staging is its first full production - directed by Rachel Chavkin, a Maryland native who is fresh off a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut directing "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812" - another big attraction to the show.
And I expect it will change further, simply because it seems a living, breathing thing, as multi-faceted as the classic Haight Victorian setting that keeps spinning round and round.
The central story involves an attempted reunion of a mid-level rock band from the height of psychedelia called the Pisces, after the zodiac sign, though their shattered state might make Pieces a more accurate name.
Lead singer, Coyote Dan (Dan Manning) is something of a blues yeller with a touch of First Edition era Kenny Rogers. Drummer Melvin (Michael Anthony Williams) has turned to jazz and a professorship and a particularly paranoid strain of organic living. Guitarist Carl (Kelly) is spaced out and on his last legs (though his feet are his own here); it's clear this reunion is in his honor to shake him out of a funk or give him a last sendoff.
Carl's brother, Jimmy (Brian Reisman), the bassist, isn't there at all any more. He died years before in an overdose. In his place is Jimmy's daughter, Chloe (Renata Friedman), who carries a grudge about her father's indulgent departure and has since become an especially cynical insult comic. Still, she's learned the old songs in deference to her beloved uncle Carl, at least until he gets the idea to devote their reunion show to the premiere, after half a century, of a long-shelved musical about The Three Stooges.
Would that there would be just a note of that effort, which seemed to have raised the unsung Shemp to godlike status (and cast off some of the later Curly replacements: "Curly Joe is an apostate," it is declared). But what's surprising about "I'll Get You Back Again," at least this iteration of it, is how little music there is played live at all.
Lots of advance stories talked about how hard it was to find talented actors who could also play convincingly on instruments, but they are used just about once, to perform the play's title song in a manner akin to old Jefferson Airplane (whose Mary Balin gets a name check in the script).
There's plenty else going on though. And a lot of the pre-recorded music between scenes by Rick Sims is evocative, as are the projections of Jared Mezzocchi, which becomes quite a stunning light show, with static growing out of a TV set to engulf the full stage before shrinking back to that tiny plastic frame; or a wild projection of the set's properties and its cast onto the actual set and cast to copy psychedelia's effect.
What keeps things centered in this swirling gyroscope is the cast, particularly Kelly, who is still in his wild white hair and beard from "Twin Peaks" and (in another technique used on David Lynch's series), pauses a beat longer than expected before saying his lines, like the dazed burnout he is supposed to be.
Yet there's more to his performance than that as he alone has to switch mid-scene to the teenage version of himself as the other characters of Melvin and Dan are filled in by the able youthful replacements of Jonathan Livas and Harrison Smith, respectively.
There's a real affection between Carl and his niece, and Chloe's reservoir of sorrow and vindictive comedy is deeply affecting.
Manning plays his role with all the required ego and panache of a faded star who convinces himself he's still a draw on the state fair circuit.
When he gets into a groove, Williams is very funny as the jazz drummer who's kept Carl under his wing (and forced on him odd herbal drinks) all this time. He hits his stride when he begins some of his stream-of-consciousness college lectures, which begin to sound like Gil-Scott Heron.
A special delight is Helen Hedman as the free spirit who is Chloe's mother and Carl's sister in law and has no apologies for her paisley-eyed approach to life.
While the musical stab shows them able rockers, the Three Stages bits, when they get to them, are a little hesitant in their malicious slapstick.
Carolyn Mraz' turntable set, lit by Nancy Schertler, is a marvel. The well appointed old crash pad, with its living room, porch and kitchen coming into view as it turns around, eventually just spins, allowing characters to wander through the house at the same time as it allows us to see the way Carl see's the mayhem there - in a motion going round and round.
Kelly, in his very humane performance, doesn't rage as life crashes in on him; he more often stands in awe as understanding falls into place.
"I'll Get You Back Again" is a spirited and authentic feeling attempt to grab the nebulousness of the 60s counterculture and come to terms with what it all means now, but it's so packed with sharp and funny dialogue, it's almost as good a reflection of contemporary comedy as it is rock 'n' roll.
For the Round House, the bold embrace of something so ambitious and experimental and full of life, puts it on the level of some of the best cutting edge houses in the area, like Woolly Mammoth.
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.
"I'll Get You Back Again" continues at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda, through Oct. 29. Tickets available online.