The eponymous, fictional Kansas City rock band in Stefan Marks’ new play, “Middle8,” now at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood, almost made it big — 20-some years ago. Now losing their hair, paunchy, slogging away at ordinary jobs to support ordinary families, the five of them are still haunted by what-ifs and if-onlys. It’s never too late to get the band back together, is it? Sometimes, actually, it is. And then only questions remain.
Why didn’t Middle8 become a rock legend? Its members can’t say — and nobody except them cares. Bands that aren’t famous don’t get interviewed, they amusingly point out during a “Behind the Music”-style sequence, in which each of them struggles to tell an unseen interlocutor what went wrong.
After all, what differentiates bands that get famous from bands that don’t? There’s really just one difference, isn’t there? The fame.
That little detail aside, band stories are indistinguishable. Kids with stars in their eyes, clanging away in a garage. Having breakthroughs and setbacks. Falling out over creative differences. Competing for girls. One band gets famous, and the world wants to hear its story. The world couldn’t care less about the other band — even though it’s the same story.
The lonely bewilderment of the also-ran! It’s one of the most poignant, relatable forms of human suffering, and clearly one to which the author and cast of “Middle8” have given thought. In real life, Marks and his costars, Geoff Dunbar, Matt Kaminsky, Brett Pearsons and Ken Weiler, are an actual L.A. band, the Four Postmen (even though there are five of them). They’ve been together for 26 years, and they’ve written hundreds of songs and cut albums, performed all over and won devoted fans. They play their instruments, live, with flair; their harmonies are pretty and their lyrics are sardonic, witty, self-deprecating and rueful. Their Wikipedia page is expansive. They’re definitely no MIddle8.
At the same time, it’s possible that the Four Postmen would like to have been better known and richer than they are. Who wouldn’t? So there’s an interplay between the actors and their stage avatars that lends an extra something — a frisson of autobiography, a self-awareness — to Marks’ script. The guys’ individual quirks and their bonds with one another ring true. They don’t have to stretch much as actors to convey a deep disappointment in how reality has fallen short of their dreams.
Marks particularly has a mordant, edgy sense of humor as a writer, and as a performer he is notable for his deadpan, boozy delivery; he could be a member of a Rat Pack lost in time. His script is funniest when it’s mocking the pretensions and delusions of these aging, would-be rock stars. There’s a brilliant scene in which Adam (Kaminsky) frantically staves off mortality by writing a rock opera — typing out the script on a screen in real time as actors gamely try to act it out. And it is revealed that MIddle8 once tried to reinvent itself as a hip-hop trio in a stunning performance that is, by itself, worth the price of a ticket. These gems could be condensed into a fun show called “Midlife Crisis: The Musical!”
But the story is trying to do more than that, and sometimes it gets confused and tired. We are given more detail than we need or want about each fictional band member’s travails, which are often uncomfortably mawkish. We’ve barely even met some of them before we’re being asked to weep at their funerals. Sometimes the script jumps wildly around in time, with no discernible narrative payoff, or else it gets bogged down in endless exchanges of small talk. By the end I wasn’t sure which band members were supposed to be alive and which had died (they get the same amount of stage time), and although I remained sympathetic, I was ready for them to stop talking and singing about it.
The talented Marks, who directed as well as wrote “Middle8,” might benefit from a very severe editor to help him locate the story he wants to tell in this promising material. On the other hand, as one of Adam’s bandmates says of his rock opera, “You can’t possibly cut everything you need to cut.”
Where: Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (see website for additional performances) Ends Dec. 15
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Price: $25. www.fourpostmen.com/middle8