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Troubled Waters

In "The Capeman," Paul Simon proves he doesn’t know his salsa from his salsify; the only surprising thing about Mark Ravenhill's "Shopping & Fucking" is the title.

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The outlaw as hero is a ticklish topic. He works best when he is an honest little guy greatly wronged by the ruling class, like Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas or his American cousin, Coalhouse Walker, who already loses something by his persecutors’ being merely volunteer firemen. He may also score by robbing the rich to succor the poor, but Robin Hood gains a lot by being a medieval legend rather than a modern-day reality. Significantly, Billy the Kid comes off best in Eugene Loring’s ballet, where the bullets are only notes in Aaron Copland’s music.

But with Salvador Agrón, a.k.a. The Capeman, the problem intensifies. He is fact, not fiction; at age 16, he cold-bloodedly killed two young men he mistakenly thought were members of a rival gang: Apprehended, he spewed out words of ugly, remorseless defiance. True, he acquired education in jail and wrote a memoir, but in the seven years left to him after release, he accomplished nothing -- not so much as a bird shelter or a volume of uplifting doggerel. The only reason Paul Simon could have chosen Agrón as subject for his putative conquest of Broadway is a befuddled liberal notion of seeing him as the hapless victim of a materialistic society. Moreover, Simon, known for his leanings toward exotic musical cultures (Africa, Brazil), here chose to embrace Puerto Rico.

Could anyone have escaped hearing about the legions of directors, choreographers, transient play doctors, and famous friends who had input into the musical The Capeman, whose protracted birth pangs far exceeded those required to produce real-life septuplets? Alas, Paul Simon and Derek Walcott’s musical may well be the most ridiculous mouse ever birthed by parturient mountains. Or, rather, more sinister than ridiculous: The Capeman is as much a moral fiasco as an artistic failure.

Agrón and the Vampires, a street gang led by the Umbrella Man, are shown early on shoplifting threads in a comic scene in which the hard-sell storekeepers are portrayed as grotesque capitalists, whereas the thieving youths are fun-loving con artists, apotheosized when Sal raises his arms to reveal the scarlet lining of his stolen cape as if it were the rainbow of the Covenant encircling Mount Ararat. Conversely, as the Times critic complained, “the pivotal stabbing . . . almost passes unnoticed,” but didn’t he realize this was meant to minimize our hero’s tragic flaw: What are two little slayings in the greater schema of an $11 million Paul Simon musical?

It might help, of course, if the show showed signs of talent. Paul Simon’s Latino music, even crossbred with doo-wop, carries monotony to maniacal lengths, each song about as individual as a machine-chopped slice of chorizo. The lyrics seamlessly blend Paul Simon’s pop and Derek Walcott’s Homeric sensibilities; but then, why shouldn’t the overinflated troubadour and the overrated laureate of p.c. mesh serendipitously? On the one hand, the relentlessly repeated “I was born in Puerto Rico,” which is pure Simon; on the other, the no less gratingly reiterated “Time is an endless ocean of tears,” which is profoundest Walcott. And either bard could have delivered himself of the divine distich “The barrio was just another reservation, / But the day of the revolution is coming fast” or the searing platitude “I wrote these pages not with ink but with blood.”

The reference to the reservation is triggered by Salvador’s epistolary prison romance with a desert-dwelling Indian hippie, a presumably fact-based but incoherent episode that the authors throw in like a tomahawk but that lands in their faces like a boomerang. Even the tired device of showing us three Agróns crisscrossing one another -- the child Salvi, the youth Sal, and the man Salvador -- is enough to give agronomy a bad name.

There is little a performer can do with such threadbare material. Two popular purveyors of Latin song, the salsa king Marc Anthony and Puerto Rico’s “internationally renowned singer-composer” Ednita Nazario, as Sal and his mother, Esmeralda, are further hampered by not being actors. As the middle-aged Salvador, Rubén Blades puts on his best Mount Rushmore face and moves as if in cement shoes, thereby indicating the gravity of the occasion. The only performer who registers at all is the Umbrella Man of Renoly Santiago. Even more surprising is that neither Mark Morris, the credited choreographer, nor the sundry uncredited ones, could enliven things with some infectious dancing.

The Capeman has one thing going for it: Bob Crowley’s décor. But some of the sets are too good, with their odd worm’s-eye-view perspective, their contrasts of splashy Puerto Rican colors with drab Hell’s Kitchen monochrome, and their winsome use of miniatures -- especially a prison scene with domino-playing dummies seen vertically rather than horizontally. But such inventive embellishments, like the cape on a juvenile murderer, merely stress the exiguity under the panoply.

A no less sorry spectacle is Mark Ravenhill’s hugely hyped import Shopping and Fucking, which may herald the advent of the author as title-writer. This paltry contrivance depends entirely on its title, after which Ravenhill is all downhill. We get the shambling pursuit of five sordid London lowlifes, one of whom, a 30-year-old homosexual druggie, has purchased two young derelicts, one male, one female, in a supermarket for 20 pounds -- overpriced if you ask me. He lives with them, in his shabby quarters, in a lopsided ménage à trois. During a stay in a detox, or somewhere else, he picks up an underage male hustler, while his previous wards embark on drug pushing and phone sex. S & F can boast only the gratuitously graphic representation of sadomasochist buggery and anilingus.

Ravenhill has garbled such influences as Mike Leigh, David Mamet, and watered-down Joe Orton, and thrown together disjointed scenes of denatured dialogue that veers from the subliterate to the sublimely pretentious. Take this utterance of a pretend TV producer and certifiable drug lord: “Some say there is nothing. There is chaos. We are born into chaos, we exist in chaos, and finally we are released from chaos. But this is . . . no. This is too painful. This is too awful to contemplate. This we deny.”

By way of a little heterosexual window dressing, the one female in this quinsied quincunx is made at one point -- pointlessly -- to strip to her waist. Were she not played by an actress I used to abhor as Jennifer Dundas, now Jennifer Dundas Lowe, I would feel sorry for the indignities she has incurred here. The show has two directors and two lighting designers, which does not make up for not having one playwright.


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