Live to Bleed

Going into Roscoe Spitzer Is Afraid of Dying, I told myself I wasn't going to like it just because I know the guy who wrote it. But I also wasn't going to hate it just because I know the guy who wrote it, either.

So now I can, with completely honest, unbiased thoughts and feelings, proclaim that Joel Beers' Roscoe is a terrific play. Really. Beers, a Weekly theater writer, succeeds on all levels with his script—pee-yer-pants funny, serious when it needs to be and fabulously successful with getting his message about artistic independence across.

Roscoe begins on open-mic night at a Stanton coffeehouse (the script is very OC-centric, with several inside jokes only natives will know—gratuitous Trip the Spring references, anyone?), with a pair of overly giddy musicians yowling excruciatingly positive pop covers. Then it's Roscoe's turn, and he quickly empties the room with his self-penned tunes about "killing the pain."

Roscoe (Courtney Gains) is a downer all right, a depressed jingle writer who buries himself in Edgar Allan Poe books—surprisingly, he's somehow not a black-clad Goth kid with a syringe stuck in his arm. But he's got some huge self-confidence issues, not to mention he's terrified of departing this mortal coil forgotten about, without his music ever being heard. So he finds himself at a clinic run by Dr. Zac (K.C. Mercer), who's at times the personification of Satan and the entire pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Zac (he's a "pro"—get it?) makes a bargain with Roscoe: he'll help make Roscoe a music sensation, but it'll cost him . . . his soul! Yaaaawn. But wait . . . sure, we've seen the Faust/Damn Yankees/Crossroads soul-for-sale plotline umpteen times on stage and film, but just when you think it, Roscoe himself comes out and blurts exactly that. Beers cleverly addresses the clich by neatly running around, not through, it.

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Having done the deed, Roscoe soon can only sing happy songs and can't be gloomy even when he tries—"Knockin' On Heaven's Door" somehow just bleeds into "Hang On Sloopy." By act two, Roscoe's packing 'em in at the coffeehouse with songs like "Yummy Sunny Day." He's got fans—including a drunk who likes Roscoe because "he doesn't have to think" when he listens to him. Yet Roscoe can't help but wonder: "Why does everybody like this shitty fucking music?" (And I can't help wondering if these are, indeed, the secret innermost thoughts of bands such as Hoobastank, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Switchfoot and Maroon5.)

He's soon brought to his senses by no less than the ghost of Poe (Steve Lamprinos), a real-life manic-depressive—but, Beers asks, would Poe and his famously dark horror tales ever have existed if he'd been right in the head? The world needs creative yet disturbed people making art—the Anne Sextons, the Kurt Cobains, the Sylvia Plaths, the Vincent van Goghs—if only so everyone else can find solace in the fact there are other people out there who are just as fucked-up as they are. Ultimately, art is about self-satisfaction, Beers says, and if other people like what you're putting out, so much the better—but it's creative heresy to bend your emotions just to placate a mass audience. In that sense, Roscoe is Ricky Nelson's old '70s hit "Garden Party" come to life—if you can't please everyone, you just have to please yourself.

Great job, Joel.


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