Punk Rock 101

Johnny Thunders wasn't just another rock & roll junkie who got high and burned out. He was special. Thunders achieved a triumphant conquest of early American punk rock as a guitarist extraordinaire for the New York Dolls. His reputation for drug abuse was one of the most notorious in all of rock history. Okay, so then he burned out, making his musical victory temporary and his personal outcome tragic.

But the story of Thunders' jagged rise and jumbled fall nonetheless remains compelling. In William Mittler's play So Alone, its simple, streamlined retelling comes off like a lesson in Punk Rock 101—true to the brand of raging idealism that prompted Thunders to describe New York's punk nouveau and Patti Smith as "pseudo-motherfuckers."

So Alone is one of the more ambitious projects to be produced by one of Orange County's small theaters. It features live bands that portray the proto-punk New York Dolls and Thunders' post-Dolls band, the Heartbreakers. And it features Robert Dean Nunez, who unites both bands as he inhabits the role of Thunders. Nunez revives the black-leather rebellion of Thunders, passionately swaggering about the stage as he climbs toward rock stardom.

It doesn't always make for a pretty picture, as Thunders roars through life cussing and shooting up. He was greatly disliked during his time, and many critics of the era peppered their descriptions of him with words like "prick" and "asshole." But Mittler's nearly three-hour musical drama is a sincere look at the short life of this rock & roll casualty, from his heroin addiction and his groupies to his band mates and the rigors of the road. And Nunez makes Thunders curiously sympathetic and engaging to watch. He's even able to deliver some clichd lines without affectation. This production isn't pseudo-anything.

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Mittler, who also directs, brings a message of punk's purpose to the play through the use of well-chosen supporting characters who played prominent parts in Thunders' life, such as Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Palladin. All of these people held a special place in the life of Thunders: at one time or another, he told each to fuck off. One highlight among the large cast is Chezney Higgins' portrayal of Angel, who captures the zoned-out, seductively tragic lifestyle of a junkie groupie.

Under the musical direction of Mitchel Faris, both bands hold up quite well, convincingly performing a handful of songs from both the Dolls and the Heartbreakers. Nunez plays lead guitar in both outfits, and K.C. Mercer gives a very energetic, comical performance as Dolls front man David Johanson, who transmogrifies into the novelty singer Buster Poindexter in an ironically fitting visual sign of Johansen's creed that "image is everything." The Dolls' "Personality Crisis," and Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot" sound as authentic as the record, although Nunez still has a way to go to capture the attitude Thunders possessed live. (Think Lou Reed and Iggy Pop's onstage personas and you get an idea.)

The audience gets a special musical treat when the Heartbreakers perform "Crawfish," their freaked-out 1980s duet with Palladin, which was scarcely performed when Thunders was alive.

The music—along with the sex, drugs, whores, bitches and death on display—are all critical elements of Mittler's play. They are as necessary to this piece as they were to the decade of the 1970s, which birthed and killed an entire punk-rock dynasty in one fell swoop. And if the music doesn't make you understand why so many people were waiting for Johnny Thunders to die, then the eerily effective shoot-up scenes done Sid and Nancy-style surely will.

So Alone at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Ste. 4, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Thru Aug. 19. $15.

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