In­ten­sity dom­i­nates life of a ‘ Rock Critic’

Los Angeles Times - - POP & HISS - Cal­en­dar@ latimes. com

“Talk amongst your­selves,” says a wild- eyed Lester Bangs as he ham­mers away at his type­writer, ges­tur­ing us into his un­kempt apart­ment, Black Sab­bath blar­ing from the turntable. “And no­body touch my records.”

So be­gins “How to Be a Rock Critic,” a co- pro­duc­tion by South Coast Reper­tory and Cen­ter Theatre Group at the up­stairs space of the Kirk Dou­glas Theatre in Cul­ver City. Though still f ind­ing its struc­tural con­text, the play is noth­ing if not a wild and woolly vir­tual in­ter­view with the leg­endary mu­sic writer.

As em­bod­ied to his mar­row by the for­mi­da­ble Erik Jensen, whose f ire- edged turn is some­thing to see, Bangs is as likely to of­fer the front row a beer as he is to toss an al­bum across the room even as he’s putting it on the turntable.

Co- writ­ten by Jensen and his wife, Jes­sica Blank, who di­rects the in­ter­mis­sion­less pro­ceed­ings, “Rock Critic” cer­tainly lives up to its sub­ti­tle: “Based on the Writ­ings of Lester Bangs.” Run­ning from early days in Es­con­dido through his ex­pe­ri­ences at Rolling Stone and Creem mag­a­zines un­til his demise at age 33, Jensen and Blank’s script culls heav­ily from pub­lished re­views and off- the- record state­ments in an ef­fort to sum­mon its free­wheel­ing, hard- par­ty­ing sub­ject.

Thus we get Bangs’ child­hood with a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness mother who burned up his Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs- inspired writ­ings and an al­co­holic fa­ther who burned up him­self. There’s the ubiq­ui­tous drug use, the pro­fanely elo­quent phi­los­o­phiz­ing and, above all, rock mu­sic, which was be­yond re­li­gion to this 20th cen­tury icon­o­clast.

And how Jensen por­trays him. Sham­bling about de­signer Richard Hoover’s acridly rep­re­sen­ta­tive set, shift­ing from manic to ref lec­tive on a hair­pin turn, Jensen de­liv­ers the as­pect and essence of the man, his reen­act­ment of Bangs’ famed on­stage ap­pear­ance with the J. Geils Band a riv­et­ing comic high­light.

It’s a ter­rific per­for­mance in a strong stag­ing — David Rob­bins’ sound de­sign is es­pe­cially choice — and it goes far to off­set cer­tain still- jelling perime­ters of text and con­cept. The through line of Bangs’ on­go­ing search for Van Mor­ri­son’s “As­tral Weeks” is a thin con­nec­tive tis­sue, and a rep­e­ti­tious qual­ity emerges amid the stream- of- con­scious­ness re­count­ings and poetic re­al­iza­tions.

But just try to look away. “Ul­ti­mately,” Bangs says, “be­ing a critic means want­ing to inf lict your taste on other peo­ple.” This promis­ing solo show ab­so­lutely inf licts Bangs’ ethos on us.

Craig Schwartz Cen­ter Theatre Group

ERIK JENSEN por­trays Rolling Stone and Creem writer Lester Bangs.

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