CHESTER – At bottom, “Arms on Fire’’ is about saving and being saved. But Steven Sater’s sluggish and underdeveloped drama stands in need of salvation itself, from the playwright’s self-indulgence.
Time and again, Sater allows his slender story of the friendship between a floundering singer and a big-hearted factory worker — plus the ghostly nightclub performer who haunts the worker’s memory — to drift into abstract metaphysical maundering. From there, it’s a short trip to tedium.
Now receiving its world premiere at the Chester Theatre Company under the direction of Byam Stevens, “Arms on Fire’’ features music by Duncan Sheik, Sater’s collaborator on the Tony-winning “Spring Awakening.’’ What they’ve come up with this time is a two-act porridge of half-realized moments, in which attitudes and poses too often take the place of genuine ideas and feelings.
It’s too bad, because there is a glimmer of promise in the premise of “Arms on Fire’’: that a decent man, having failed to rescue the love of his life from a spiral of self-destruction, would seek a second chance — and perhaps a form of personal redemption — when another troubled soul enters his life.
The vulnerable figure is Smith, an on-the-skids hipster, originally from Iowa, who’s been trying but failing to break into the music industry — and who is no stranger to hustling and hard-drug use. As portrayed by James Barry, the hyper-voluble, jackrabbit-jumpy Smith comes across like a cross between Neal Cassady and Maynard G. Krebs, all revved-up patter and grandiose, spacey concepts.
With slicked-back hair and sideburns, decked out in a black leather jacket, the ever-inventive Barry (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’) is largely responsible for whatever voltage “Arms on Fire’’ is able to generate. But he is also saddled with Smith’s patience-trying mannerisms; referring to himself as “The Smith,’’ for example. There’s only so much an actor can do when he is required to natter on about such matters as “the karma of crustacea,’’ or to say, in a not-at-all-atypical line of dialogue, “Ulysses, man, this is — this is, like, a real, you know — this is a thing!’’
The Ulysses in question, played by Guiesseppe Jones, is a stolid, blue-collar guy with whom Smith develops a wildly implausible friendship. A former disc jockey originally from Honduras, Ulysses now lives in a basement apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, adorned by set designer Travis A. George with a collage that evokes the teeming city outside the apartment.
There’s a one-note monotony to Jones’s performance, especially in the first act. Because the actor emphasizes Ulysses’ taciturnity to the point of leaden stiffness, the character’s emotional outpouring in the second act seems to come out of nowhere. Moreover, even granting that a dreamlike, allegorical aura rather than naturalism is the playwright’s goal, and even granting that Ulysses seems bent on redemption, we simply don’t believe that he would spend five minutes in Smith’s company, much less invite the singer to move into his apartment.
Ah, but there is another singer in “Arms on Fire’’ who, though apparently dead, is still very much in the picture: Josephina, Ulysses’ long-lost love. A wild-spirited chanteuse played by Natalie Mendoza, Josephina perpetually materializes, swaying sensuously as she performs in a Honduran nightclub. (She eventually shows up in the apartment and becomes visible to Smith as well.)
At first, Josephina is seen only through a scrim upstage. A bewitching figure in a shimmering evening gown (the costumes are by Charles Schoonmaker), she sings snatches of torchy ballads composed by Sheik, with lyrics by Sater. A song titled “Mr. Chess’’ serves as commentary on the action. While undeniably lovely, and well performed by Mendoza, the tunes interrupt the dramatic flow of “Arms on Fire,’’ which is none too steady to begin with.
While Sater never really settles on a tone, the play tips decisively toward melodrama whenever Ulysses talks about Josephina: how she drank and danced and did drugs all night, how she would then hitchhike naked to the beach, how her passion constantly careened into heedlessness.
“Smith, she was a woman with her arms on fire,’’ Ulysses says, adding: “I couldn’t . . . stop her.’’ As for “Arms on Fire,’’ it never really gets started.