This Crazy, Jazzy World

Vowing to "revivify the vital fluids stored in the neural coconuts," a failed jazz singer and his eccentric, ivory-tickling sidekick attempt to explain how the "elastic wholeness of the biomatrix" -- or, in layman's parlance, life -- has slowly deteriorated since an event known as the Big Snafu occurred. With stand-up pluck and dogged hucksterism, the affable lounge lizard launches into his convoluted tale about celestial ancestors, alien abductors and "intergalactic bureaucratic rigmarole" (softly accompanied, of course, by jazzy piano strains). By the time The Incredible Comeback of Frankie Pera reaches the end of Act One, it's clear that the peppy crooner is either a highly advanced visitor from another galaxy or, more likely, a loosely wound conspiracy theorist with more metal than bone in his skull.

What's even more disturbing, though, is that as Mike Chappelle and Gregg Painter's two-hour cabaret act continues, Frankie's rantings actually begin to make sense -- and sound increasingly relevant. But before that harmonic convergence takes place, the actors slog through a rambling narrative that's more confusing than enlightening. As the house lights dim in the Mercury Cafe's commodious Jungle Room, a lanky, silver-haired figure works his way to the stage. After adjusting a couple of microphones and finding a resting spot for his sheet music, piano player Kozad Winklemeyer Jr. (Painter) tells us that his father was a renowned psychiatrist who treated the legendary singer -- and notorious drunk -- Frankie Pera (Chappelle) with electroshock, LSD and other experimental techniques. ("It all worked," Kozad Jr. says sheepishly.) Later, when Kozad wound up in a VA hospital as a result of injuries he sustained in Vietnam, he met a delusional soldier named Victor, who loved to sing old songs. Gradually, we learn that Kozad applied some of his dad's theories about music's soothing powers in an effort to help Victor, who responded to his war buddy's overtures by assuming the bubbly persona of a time-traveling, star-hopping Frankie Pera. (Ten years ago, Chappelle similarly took on the role of an offbeat raconteur while performing his acclaimed one-man show, Doctor Antonioni's Imaginary Disease, which dissected the state of medicine in America at the height of the AIDS epidemic.)

Since Kozad's experimental therapy yielded somewhat positive results, he and his pal have decided to take their act on the road. As a way of informing us where he's been since he flipped out/detoxed back in the Sixties/ Fifties, Victor/Frankie belts out vintage songs like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Over the Rainbow," the lyrics of which cleverly tie together his fragmented story about the recent realignment of interplanetary forces. When he describes being physically examined by his otherworldly captors, for instance, he breaks into a tongue-in-cheek rendition of "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me." And when he refers to the "musilogicals that saturated the ethno-centers" following the recent invasion of space creatures, he flashes a sly smile and lets us know which part of the world he's talking about by singing "I'll Take Manhattan."

But while those sung segues (and Painter's wondrous piano riffs and stammering delivery) are entertaining enough, Chappelle's endless litany of pseudo-scientific terms and anecdotes -- which amount to a science-fictionalized history of twentieth-century America -- quickly grows tiresome. Especially when the densely worded information he provides doesn't look like it's ever going to add up to anything more than a flimsy excuse to belt out a few vintage tunes. Then, out of the blue, Kozad tells Frankie that his eternally optimistic outlook is severely out of whack in a society where plagues like school shootings and cancer claim innocent lives. Piqued by his friend's blunt pessimism, Frankie responds by saying to the crowd, "People still care down here, don't they?" Which, in turn, prompts the tuxedoed, ectomorphic pair to interrupt their stream-of-consciousness nightclub show to take questions from the audience about who's responsible for the world's ills. For the final twenty or so minutes, Chappelle and Painter challenge theatergoers -- in ways that simultaneously tweak, probe and amuse -- to re-examine their place in the cosmos. And, at last propelled by that old-fashioned dramatic device known as Conflict Leading to a Crisis, the evening's mixture of swing tunes and fractured jargon suddenly seems to have had a purpose.

Frankie Pera isn't simply another self-indulgent work of performance art that degenerates into an unintentional object lesson in arrested development or a deathly serious excursion through mud, blood and bad poetry. On the contrary: Chappelle and Painter's efforts are reminiscent of the days when environmental productions, street theater and "happenings" were among the most invigorating theatrical fare around. That's not so much because their act is rivetingly believable or impeccably constructed -- the first act needs some serious streamlining, and the entire piece would benefit from more interplay between the characters -- but because it lacks the pretensions that typically arise these days when performers are more focused on satisfying their own egos than meeting the demands of the play. No matter how sluggish the pace, or how perplexing the material, Chappelle and Painter manage to open our eyes to what's honorable, necessary and inevitable by reminding us, as Frankie softly sings near play's end, of the "fundamental things that apply." That they do so by turning our brains inside out for the first ninety minutes ultimately proves far less irritating than necessary.

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Jim Lillie

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