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Theater: Suzanne Vega Dips Her Toes Into Live Theater

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CARSON MCCULLERS TALKS ABOUT LOVE * 1/2 out of ****
RATTLESTICK THEATRE

Suzanne Vega is a marvelous singer and songwriter whose body of work looks more impressive with every passing year. She's also an excellent writer about the creative process, as anyone who has followed her missives online for the New York Times knows very well. To top it off, she bears a strong resemblance to the author Carson McCullers. So it makes perfect sense that Vega would launch a one-woman show that centered around this complicated fascinating woman.

It's a project she's been gestating for many years, perhaps too long. With so much time to mull it over, Carson McCullers Talks About Love goes off in about three directions, none of them too satisfying. For all that, it's rather basic.

Vega comes on stage to describe her first powerful reaction to a photograph of McCullers (whom she had thought was a man); then she sits down and dons a wig to casually inhabit this artist. As McCullers, she delivers arch monologues, punctuated by vivid songs Vega wrote with Duncan Sheik and sometimes interrupted by her pianist in a meta manner more appropriate for Kiki & Herb than McCullers. The simple stage also manages to feel wrong somehow, containing a glistening floor that hints at flashy nightclubs.

McCullers may be more worldly than we realize -- she was friends with Truman Capote among many others, while living it up in New York City. But the setting and the awkward attempts at levity feel wrong. It doesn't help that Vega is not yet a confident performer, struggling with her lines when I saw the show on May 2. Her performance is mostly on one level with one ironic note being struck again and again. Still, she's relatively fine when facing the audience and reciting dialogue. Ask her to interact with a fellow actor or deal with props and like many novices she flounders a bit.

The songs unsurprisingly are the show's strong suit, ranging from pretty good to quite good, all delivered with Vega's usual aplomb. They'll make a nice song cycle on an album, one assumes. If she dropped the hokey framing device and the cabaret setting and just faced the audience nakedly and directly as McCullers, Vega might mine this material for more riches than she does here. With time and practice, an artist so used to the stage can surely improve as an actor.

If it's been a while since you've spun one of your Suzanne Vega CDs, put it on and be amazed at her durability. Do yourself a favor and purchase Volume One or Two of Close-up, a new series of albums where Vega revisits some of her best tunes in an intimate setting that shows off her voice wonderfully. While you're at it, dive into one of Carson McCullers' best works -- notably The Member Of The Wedding or The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. Surely that's the ultimate goal for Vega's show anyway.

*****
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.