Theater Review - Come! Hear the devil's music!

Broadsword presents a compelling portrait of rock 'n' roll casualties

Every rock band that's ever jammed originated in a room like Jon Nooner's set for Broadsword at Actor's Express. A narrow, plank-like staircase leads to a basement littered with cassette tapes and comic books, while pink insulation bleeds from the walls. Despite the squalor, the guitars, drum kit and amp show signs of loving attention. Pride of place belongs to a display of medieval weaponry that evokes the name of the band in question: a head-banging combo called Broadsword.

Narratives about heavy metal musicians probably make audiences think of Spinal Tap getting lost backstage. With Broadsword, playwright Marco Ramirez shows little interest in the genre's crunchy musical clamor or fire-and-leather stage effects. Directed by Freddie Ashley, Broadsword could concern any group of musicians who rocked out in their teenage years, enjoyed some local notoriety, and then disbanded, leaving wild memories and tinnitus. Actor's Express's world premiere production captures the story's naturalistic sides with perfect pitch. But once Broadsword drops hints of supernatural elements, the composition goes off-key.

A funeral for Broadsword's musical prodigy, Richie, leads to a reunion of the thirtysomething ex-musicians in small-town Rahway, N.J. Drummer-turned-bartender Nicky (Justin Welborn) and bassist/mechanic Vic (Dolph Amick) have drinks in Richie's basement and reminisce about the departed's quirky talents. For instance, Richie was the only one in the band who could read music, so he composed a shorthand with chords and key changes for his less adept bandmates — a nice character detail that proves pivotal to the plot. Mystery surrounds Richie's death, and at first, all we know is that he's been inexplicably missing for six months, and that he obsessed over musical folklore and the possibility of "music inside the music."

Two unexpected guests bring tension to the gathering: Richie's estranged brother Tony (Bryan Brendle), who quit Broadsword and ditched Rahway years ago to pursue rock-star dreams on the West Coast, and the British Dr. Thorne (Rial Ellsworth), who suggests that Richie's crackpot musical notions may have been more significant than Broadsword ever believed. Dr. Thorne also suggests that Richie's last song may provide a means to defy death itself. Ellsworth gives the role a menacing charm comparable to the kind of tweedy occult experts from England's Hammer Studios horror films.

A would-be band manager (Chris Kayser) opens the show with a monologue that combines flattery and threat to tempt a young musician to make a leap to the big time. Later, through Dr. Thorne's exposition, Broadsword evokes a long tradition of Mephistophelean musical folklore, which resounds through the work of artists ranging from bluesman Robert Johnson to the Charlie Daniels Band to Tenacious D. The crux of Act Two concerns whether the guys can put aside their differences and play just one more song, and whether they can achieve the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle musical proficiency that Broadsword never reached in its youth.

Amick and Welborn nicely play off each other as two kinds of has-beens: Amick feels grateful for the little Broadsword attained, while Welborn conveys bitterness that the band didn't attain more. Brendle, tall and dressed for mingling at swank rock clubs, looks more showbiz than his former friends, but also holds more anxieties over fame's fickle nature. As Becca, Broadsword's now-grown groupie, Stacy Melich does the best with some clichéd dialogue that condescends to people from blue-collar backgrounds. Melich also gets one of the play's best lines, when she recalls that her favorite part of a gig is the amplifier hum before the music starts, "the sound of potential sound."

Broadsword persuasively assembles so many credible little moments that the characters feel far more real than the plot. Plus, the melodramatic mysticism never proves entirely convincing. And while the play ends with a memorably defiant gesture, the final scene runs so short that it feels like an anticlimax. Ramirez and director Ashley need to savor the play's final note for the conclusion to have real impact. Broadsword falls a little flat as a thriller, but characters' authenticity still leaves us calling for an encore.

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