Review: ‘How to Be a Rock Critic’: The manic, riveting return of Lester Bangs
“Talk amongst yourselves,” says a wild-eyed Lester Bangs as he hammers away at his typewriter, gesturing us into his unkempt apartment, Black Sabbath blaring from the turntable. “And nobody touch my records.”
So begins “How to Be a Rock Critic,” a co-production by South Coast Repertory and Center Theatre Group at the upstairs space of the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Though still finding its structural context, the play is nothing if not a wild and woolly virtual interview with the legendary music writer.
As embodied to his marrow by the formidable Erik Jensen, whose fire-edged turn is something to see, Bangs is as likely to offer the front row a beer as he is to toss an album across the room even as he’s putting it on the turntable.
Co-written by Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, who directs the intermissionless proceedings, “Rock Critic” certainly lives up to its subtitle: “Based on the Writings of Lester Bangs.” Running from early days in Escondido through his experiences at Rolling Stone and Creem magazines until his demise at age 33, Jensen and Blank’s script culls heavily from published reviews and off-the-record statements in an effort to summon its freewheeling, hard-partying subject.
Thus we get Bangs’ childhood with a Jehovah’s Witness mother who burned up his William S. Burroughs-inspired writings and an alcoholic father who burned up himself. There’s the ubiquitous drug use, the profanely eloquent philosophizing and, above all, rock music, which was beyond religion to this particular 20th century iconoclast.
And how Jensen portrays him. Shambling about designer Richard Hoover’s acridly representative set, shifting from manic to reflective on a hairpin turn, Jensen delivers the aspect and essence of the man, his reenactment of Bangs’ famed onstage appearance with the J. Geils Band a riveting comic highlight.
It’s a terrific performance in a strong staging -- David Robbins’ sound design is especially choice -- and it goes far to offset certain still-jelling perimeters of text and concept. The through line of Bangs’ ongoing search for Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” is a thin connective tissue, and a repetitious quality emerges amid the stream-of-consciousness recountings and poetic realizations.
But just try to look away. “Ultimately,” Bangs says, “being a critic means wanting to inflict your taste on other people.” This promising solo show absolutely inflicts Bangs’ ethos on us.
“How to Be a Rock Critic,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $30. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
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