Slipping away from a wake, five people gather in a grubby basement in Rahway, New Jersey, to try and make sense of a friend’s death. Amidst cassette tapes and guitars, a tattered couch and a skeletal framework of unfinished rooms, the remaining members of the heavy-metal band Broadsword come to terms with the loss of their band mate — and musical genius — Richie. But they are also coming to terms with what his death represents in their own lives and how even mere proximity to Richie’s greatness lifted their loserdom into the bittersweet realm of transcendence. In “Broadsword,” at Actor’s Express through February 12, set designer Jon Nooner has fashioned a transportive setting, a kind of rec room-cum-hell with the especially imaginative flourish of guitars, battle axes and swords arranged behind Broadsword’s drum kit like failure’s family crest.
Writer Marco Ramirez’s play, directed by Freddie Ashley, is the oddest of birds: a heavy-metal thriller with an almost absurd reliance on supernatural content and a truly memorable performance from Justin Welborn, the charismatic engine driving “Broadsword’s” progress. (But I’d speculate that even the most satanic of metal bands might find the demon-centric, life-after-rock plotline of “Broadsword” a bit, well, corny.)
Nicky (Welborn) is the band’s resident skeptic and realist, the guy whose brain is the agent of his misery: he’s smart enough to revel in masochistic contemplation of his failure to live out his rock ‘n’ roll dreams. Cocky and manic, even despite his existential exhaustion and despondency, Nicky’s gimlet-eyed view of life has undoubtedly been partly formed by living in his van and working behind a bar listening to other men’s tall tales of almost-greatness. His acid-tongued nihilism is transfixing: it’s the dark aphrodisiac of someone who doesn’t care anymore and isn’t afraid to speak the bitter truth. As Richie’s friends and band mates come together, Nicky punctures every moment of heavy-metal mysticism with lines like “everything about us smacks of let down.”
The assembled players are the absurdly starched British musicologist Dr. Thorne (Rial Ellsworth), Broadsword’s sweet-natured bass player Vic (Dolph Amick), groupie Becca (convincingly played as a party girl-with-a-brain by Stacy Melich), and self-interested lead vocalist Tony (Bryan Brendle). Tony has flown in from Los Angeles with the notion of achieving rock ‘n’ roll greatness by stealing his dead brother’s musical hooks hidden somewhere in the piles of cassettes. But as Dr. Thorne begins to describe an ancient legend claiming that the right music can bring the dead back from the grave, an idea forms within the group. “Broadsword’s” rather thin premise is that, before he died, Richie was dabbling in some musical mysticism involving “the tones we forgot, between the tones we know,” as Thorne puts it. On top of that sketchy, eccentric premise, of music as supernatural force, Ramirez layers a fairly conventional figure: the devil.
The Man in White (Chris Kayser) tempts the vain and puffed-up Tony, convincing him that he has a better chance of achieving musical greatness in L.A. than raising the dead in Rahway. The devil as a silver-tongued manager in pointy black boots, white blazer and a shirt unbuttoned to his navel is a lovely conceit and one sure to warm the cockles of any band member who has done time in the us-or-them world of bands and management. Kayser does what he can, bringing an amusing sexiness to the role. But it’s not an especially complex part, playing the devil: you tempt weak human flesh. You strut.
Nicky is, naturally, the holdout, the first to squash the idea of Richie’s musical resurrection. It’s probably what makes him — beyond Welborn’s electric performance — so captivating. Much of the starry-eyed mysticism of Ramirez’s play needs deflating. Ramirez has some wicked, nimble hooks: a great setting, for one, in a Jersey basement; an appreciation for the artistic aches of life’s downtrodden; and a real distillation of the poignance of having only touched but never achieved greatness. You want to go there with Ramirez, take that leap of faith that his script requires, but in the end it’s harder than conjuring up the dead with heavy metal.