Theater Review: David Cale’s ‘We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time’

Overcoming a painful past
July 3, 2019 Updated: July 3, 2019

NEW YORK—One-person shows are generally not my cup of tea, but David Cale’s autobiographical musical “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” grabs at one’s emotions. He tells of growing up in the industrial town of Luton, once described, he says, as “the ugliest city in England.”

Things weren’t very pleasant at home either, as his alcoholic dad, Ron Egleton, made life miserable for his wife, Barbara.

David learned to escape; he developed a bird and animal hospital and took in injured creatures, with an assortment of tropical birds later reaching into the hundreds. One hen, which he named “Hennie Penny,” used to follow him around.

David’s brother Simon was particularly sensitive, and David served as his protector. David also developed a strong love for his mother, who once described their attending a film screening of “Cabaret” as one of the loveliest times she’d ever had with her son.

Such a moment carries enormous poignancy with it when a later tragic event involving his mother changes David’s life forever. In this way, the show takes on the sense of being a tribute to his mother’s memory.

David’s father is described as being the polar opposite of his mother: Ron’s alcoholism is entrenched. One sequence describes a disastrous evening when father and son were out together, ending in a violent, embarrassing scene.

Cale sings some lovely original songs, such as “Canada Geese,” co-written by himself and Matthew Dean Marsh. Though Cale’s singing voice is unremarkable, his acting talent gives the songs impact, and he gets good support from the darkly lit musical combo that accompanies him. (Lighting design is by the talented Jennifer Tipton.)

The entire production is under the capable hands of Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where the show first premiered.

Although the show has many dark moments, David Cale’s ultimate optimism leaves one with the sense that he has overcome his demons and embraces the positive aspects of existence.

‘We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time’
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: July 14

Diana Barth writes for several theater publications, including “New Millennium.” She may be contacted at diabarth99@gmail.com

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