Demon Wine: Press Articles

By Stephen Weeks

(As printed in the Demon Wine theatre program. Special thanks to Dorene LaLonde for providing the Demon Wine theatre program)

VINNIE....Still, lemme inform you, from my vantage, I see all the people coming back now I could've helped once.
JIMMIE: No shit. Dead people?
VINNIE: Dead. Alive. Whatever the middle ground is. They come back filled with reproaches that I missed my chance for them to have a good memory of me. I explain to them, I did what I could. But they are very powerful, Jimmie, these people we have to leave behind.

The claims of the dead upon the living has been a powerful theme in the theatre at least since the ghost of Hamlet's father beckoned to his son on the cold ramparts of Elsinore castle. As Shakespeare's famous scene illustrates, the Elizabethans did not hesitate to represent the supernatural directly. The theatrical art of the period embraced the transcendent as well as the mundane.

At the end of the nineteenth century, however, in an era shaped largely by the aspirations and ideals of science, the theatrical avant-garde strove to make the reality of the stage conform to new, empirical standards. The glorious artifice of painted backdrops and bravura acting gave way to a careful minimalism based on observable reality. Interior spaces - both architectural and psychological - became the favored domain of dramatic art. Today we continue to live under the sign of the "naturalist" esthetic, in part because its lessons have been wholly absorbed into intimate realism of television. Not everyone is content to mimic the surfaces of daily life, however. For Thomas Babe, as with many of the writers seen at LATC, the struggle is to break old habits of vision to find new forms of theatrical expression.

"So much of what is considered theatre is living television - what you can actually get better for free at home on good sitcoms," he says. "People who don't watch TV are spending a lot of money to find out how the middle class lives. But some of the things I want to do I can't do unless I can find a way to break the form open. It's dangerous, because you have to make your own rules and make them stick. You have to create your own conventions... Everything I do in this play, in its language and in its ambition, is to move things off dead center theatrically. That's why the ghosts are there - to remind us that this is not a documentary. It's the kind of theatre I love, it's the kind of theatrical expression I love - a style that cuts us loose and allows the audience to enter into a world they haven't seen before."

The world of Demon Wine, like Hamlet's, is an unweeded garden that grows to seed, a world where moral action is demanded, but deferred. It is a universe of failed businesses, underemployment, homelessness, and bleak despair. Traditional authority is absent, and simple justice, "for people who can't afford lawyers," as the insidious Vinnie D. says, becomes the province of the ruthless few. The references to our social reality are obvious, but Mr. Babe's starting point was more personal: 'When I started writing the play, I didn't have any money in the bank. There's nothing like financial catastrophe to sharpen one's vision."

Unlike Hamlet himself, the characters of Demon Wine are without the princely advantages of class, education, and status. Jimmie, the central figure of the play, is an Everyman, a regular guy who loses his job and falls into the world without a safety net. Prey to an assortment of hazards and temptations, Jimmie must define himself, as best he can, through moral choice. But real choice, rather than the path of least resistance, is troublesome for Jimmie; bereft of the anchor of routine, and without strong beliefs of any sort, he discovers the rewards of expediency and drifts into a habit of easy betrayal. Only a few childhood friends, those for whom boyhood was a moment both sacred and inviolate, root for Jimmie to find his way. It is one of the ironies of Demon Wine that the unraveling of the social fabric makes the experience of childhood so desperately precious - to everyone but Jimmie himself. Only that past, captured in talismanic photographs suggestive of a distant, more authentic existence, seems capable of infusing life with some sense of possibility, seriousness, and grace. A measure of the seriousness of Jimmie's plight is that the music of the past is something he cannot hear. Still, even he cannot escape the past's ineluctable grip. Babe remarks that "childhood is a form of reality that can be as real as the here and now," and the fateful intermingling of two temporal frames of reference constitutes the action of the play.

What Jimmie does not count on is the commitment of his friends to the possibility of his salvation. It is a commitment that death itself cannot undermine. For Jimmie, the ghosts march; and as these specters take the stage, the play achieves a heightened theatricality that reaches (once again) for an expression of the transcendent. This unique conjunction of moral concern and theatrical style forms the heart of Demon Wine.


(Transcript as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist by: Dorene Lalonde. August 8, 1999/ Dalsh 327. June 22, 2000)
Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1989 -- Robert Koehler.

Tom Waits has made a life out of fooling people. Just when the pop music cognoscenti had pegged him as a singer-songwriter who spent his time lamenting lost loves and dreams over warm glasses of booze, along came his 1983 album, "Swordfishtrombones", which dove into dark maelstroms of fury with weird, sly instrumentations and vocals. Just when Waits seemed forever stuck as a passionately
revered cult figure, along came his brief performances in several Francis Coppola films ("Rumblefish", "The Outsiders", "The Cotton Club"), followed by meatier appearances in "Down by Law", "Ironweed" and the upcoming "Cold Feet" by Thomas McGuane, with Jeff Bridges, Bill Pullman, and Sally Kirkland.

And just when it looked like as if Waits were going to follow the flow of pop performers crossing over into film acting (the crowded list includes Sting, Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, the Clash's Joe Strummer), he cut a different path. In 1986, he created and performed in "Frank's Wild Years" (subsequently an album) as a musical at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Last year, he joined a sterling cast, including Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, and Joe Frank, at the Doolittle Theatre for a performance tribute to French playwright Eugene Ionesco. Those were the warm-ups. Starting tonight, Waits appears in the world premiere of playwright Thomas Babe's "Demon Wine" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It is Waits' first full-length performance in a role written by someone else. (Babe is best-known for his works "A Prayer for my Daughter" and "Father and Sons").

"I feel a little intimidated", he uttered in a low, almost slurred growl -- his natural voice. "There's this great cast around me: Phillip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, Jan Munroe" -- plus reunions with his longtime friend Cort, and Pullman, who showed Waits the "Demon Wine" script during the filming of "Cold Feet". "I kinda feel like I'm surrounded by Jascha Heifetzes, and there's me coming on with three chords." In past interviews, Waits has often talked like the crazy-wise character in his highly theatrical concerts. When asked in Rolling Stone magazine about shifting from musician to actor, he responded: "It's like going from bootlegging to watch repair." However, as he sat in a Theatre Center office and thought about the task of putting Babe's blackly comic and poetically styled play on stage, Waits spoke plainly -- or as plainly as Tom Waits can. He even became a little tough on himself. "I'm very undisciplined. The schedule is the hardest thing for me. I'm not used to getting up, working [in rehearsals] for eight hours and then back home to go over the text and prepare the next days work. I have my own way of working on my own stuff. This schedule requires a discipline that's unknown to guy's like me." Then as if stringing together straight statements was too much to ask, he added, "It [the discipline] is a bone I do not have in my ribcage."

The man setting his schedule is director David Schweizer, whose reproduction of Marlane Meyer's "Kingfish" last year at LATC set the local theatre community buzzing that a gifted stage maestro with post-modern tastes had arrived. Even as an actor, Waits views Schweizer and "Demon Wine" through a musician's glasses. "David is like a conductor, and we're his orchestra, and he brings out something new in us every day. He's pretty intricate as he keeps an eye on things. He has to be. Like he was telling us just the other day, this play's a surreal comic opera with words and arias for each character. What Babe wrote is a lot closer to Prokofiev than [Delta blues man] Robert Johnson. It's loaded for bear." Then, too, the production's music score by Steve Moshier, Waits emphasized, "is a great emotional spark. Very heroic and confident,  like an Alex North score, and then it gets into a style called 'urban church'. It's nice not being the musician for a change." Waits' character, Curly, works for his mobster father (Hall) and gets his unemployed pal Jimmie (Pullman) a job as a loan shark. As Jimmie's fortunes rise, Curly's plummet. "We talked about this rise and fall stuff a lot in rehearsals," Waits said, "but it's another thing to actually play that. As Jimmie becomes more financially secure, he becomes morally bankrupt. But as Curly goes lower, he gains a certain amount of wisdom about what's happening to his friends. The material and this world are so rich, you hope you're up to the task." "Sometimes," he said of the acting life, "I feel like I'm an ant hanging onto a cracker in the middle of a storm."

Yet Waits, in the eyes of observers of pop stars-turned- thespians, is doing better than most. Christopher Connely, a senior editor and music columnist at Premier magazine, thinks that Waits has avoided the problem facing musicians who have established an identifiable persona as they bid for crossover fame. "Film or stage requires taking on different characters. Waits' advantage is that he's
a character actor, which allows him a lot of range." Ironically, another advantage, says Connely, is that "he doesn't have a mass following. Not like Madonna [who recently appeared, and was critically panned, in the premiere of David Mamet's "Speed-the Plow"]. He's not used up as a cultural icon." But Waits, as an emeritus member of LA's cultural underground, is dubious of having icon status, or success. "Both my songs and Tom's [Babe] play are about the 'gravel of the earth,' as he puts it. He's written this comedy that really slams into the American idea of success, the Horatio Alger myth that you can get what you want, and if it means climbing over a few people's backs to get there, then it's just a chance for a fancier stroll."

For a man who has penned lyrics like "the piano has been drinking," he professed awe at Babe's own lyrical ability. "There's language in this that goes from the Greek to the Arthurian to the Italian. The lines pop up in [the casts] conversation, so we're doing lines from the play when we're not doing the play." Not unlike Tom Waits fans talking in Waits-ese to each other. "That's when you get an idea that this play's gonna last. It's someplace inside you that's more permanent than what you get, say, out of a fortune cookie."


(Los Angeles Times. February 13, 1989. Transcription by Dalsh 327 as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. June 2, 2000)
By Sylvie Drake

Playwright Thomas Babe was recently quoted saying that his reason for writing "is to be larger or different than life" and that his play "Demon Wine," which opened over the weekend at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, is about "an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation who ends up someplace he didn't intend to be."

The temptation to quote Babe comes from two factors: Like most good playwrights, he uses the stage as a distortional mirror instead of a camera, and "Demon Wine" (like Babe's "Father and Sons" before it) eludes classification--perhaps the surest manifestation of its success. It can be seen as a comic satire or a satirical tragedy, with much the same results. What's constant under Babe's stylish obliqueness is the clear-eyed sobriety of his intent.

Thus, on the face of it, "Demon Wine" is the relatively simple tale of a relatively simple parts salesman named Jimmie (Bill Pullman) who loved selling parts, but whose job has been "extirpated," leaving him high if not exactly dry. While drowning his perplexity in his bourbon, he's offered another job by his friend Curly (Tom Waits), who suggests that Jimmie may want to consider working for his father, Vinnie (Philip Baker Hall).

Jimmie doesn't, but he agrees to meet the guy. Curly's father is a mobster who sucks the reluctant Jimmie into the vortex of criminal life. The rest is the stuff of which B movies are made. But this is an A play and if the characters are stock characters, it's to make a point. There's a whole raft of villains and victims here. Among the villains are Vinnie's synchronized bodyguards (Delbert Highlands and Kevin Symons in matching gestures and pin stripes), a paunchy bungler named Fast Mail (Jan Munroe) but who is definitely third class, Vinnie's moll(a languid Carol Kane), and, of course, Curly, who's not very good at villainy and gets demoted to victim down the line.

The other victim--aside from the conflicted Jimmie--is the hapless Bill (Bud Cort), an old friend of Jimmie's who dropped out, lives in a box and prefers to be known as Buffalo. Bill owes Vinnie money that Jimmie's sent to collect. That's where the trouble starts. But trite events delivered in high (sometimes cartoonish) style and skewered by offbeat, often poetic dialogue serve a distinctive purpose: to make us think about morality--not the garden variety stuff droned from the pulpit, but that which must be lived on a daily basis within the confines of individual choice and responsibility.

A mouthful, yes, but clear when you eventually realize that Jimmie is Everyman, buffeted by good and evil and trying to live up to the voice of conscience, which, in this play, comes out of the unvarnished mouth of Jimmie's 12-year-old daughter, Wanda, who loves to fish and is always hooking on to painful and embarrassing truths (Vanessa Marquez in a touching, tomboyish performance). Her capacity for candor is reminiscent of the child in "When We Were Very Young," a dance piece with di alogue that Babe developed for Twyla Tharp.

Babe is good at wrapping his medium around his message, creating a real entertainment whose layers must be unpeeled if one is to find its heart. In this passion for disguise, he has had fine support from director David Schweizer, who keeps intentional comedy at a minimum, preferring to let the slyness emerge slowly, in the occasional skip of Vinnie's matched bodyguards as they move scenery around or in the offstage noises that accompany action, such as the sound of bodies, dead or alive, dropping into the river. (Jon Gottlieb did the sound with his usual expertise.)

One could wish for a little more speed here and there (the performance runs about two-and-a-half hours), but the show resists it. There's an aura of deliberate composure that won't be pushed.

Playing into Schweizer's hand are Susan Nininger's slightly exaggerated costumes and Timian Alsaker's tongue-in-cheek set--a seemingly bare stage with side entrances and a high gray canvas backing. Except that
patches of the canvas peel off at convenient times in convenient rectangles, revealing a multipurpose structure that can be a bridge, a hotel, a jail, as the scenes dictate. Props descend, hang, glide, roll on, get raised, kicked or carried off. Everything is smooth and kept to a minimum that Marianne Schneller's lights and shadows love to cajole or attack.

The result is a sharp-looking show whose content is less accessible than it seems. Babe is a man of direct thoughts indirectly conveyed. His plays relish making you work at unmasking them--an acquired taste, in other words. And, like most acquired tastes, well worth acquiring.

At the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2, until March 19. Tickets: $22-$25; (213) 627-5599.