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Stephen Payne
Stephen Payne as Chinaski
(aka Charles Bukowski)
in South of No North
at the 29th Street Rep

Happy Hour in Hell: Charles Bukowski's South of No North (Stories of the Buried Life) - Theater Review by Spyder Darling

Chinaski lives! At least through an extended run at the 29th Street Repertory. Poet/novelist/screenwriter Charles Bukowski, the lord of the barflies, died in 1994 at the vintage age of 73. Keeping his 100-proof spirit burning bright as a flaming shot in the fatuous wind of today's gutless corporate theater, however, is actor Stephen Payne in Leo Farley's and Jonathan Powers' stage adaptation of Bukowski's novel South of No North.

Though there's a constant soundtrack of Bukowski's favorite classical music wafting out of the radio on stage, South of No North ain't a musical, a revival, or remotely suitable for children. And thank God for that. Hell, most adults might find themselves feeling a bit "icky" watching some of the play's more mature scenes.

"Hit Man," for example, is a particularly chilling vignette that depicts normal-looking businessman Bill (Charles Willey) hiring Ronnie (Gordon Holmes), a beer-swilling killer, to do in his unsuspecting wife (Paula Ewin). As Ronnie does his dirty deed, Paula's off-stage shrieks are more frightening than the entire Scream trilogy put together.

"Stop Staring at My Tits, Mister" is a lighter slice of lice that boasts a bad-ass cowboy, Big Bart (Tim Corcoran), who is as legendary with his love gun as he is with his six gun. Bart guides his stagecoach through Indian Territory while the women folk stay below "praying, masturbating, and drinking gin." Imagine a ten-minute western where High Noon meets Blazing Saddles and you'll get the idea.

Charles Bukowski
South of No North’s ensemble cast is uniformly convincing in a variety of roles. Particularly noteworthy is Stephen Payne, who gives as credible a performance, if not more so, as Mickey Rourke's Chinaski in 1987's movie Barfly, or Ben Gazzara's take on the beer-bellied bard in 1983's lesser known, but still worth looking for, Tales of Ordinary Madness. As mentioned earlier, Ewin, Corcoran and Holmes are standouts, as is Elizabeth Elkins as Jeannie, the basement-dwelling floozy, Honeydew the horny cowgirl, or simply "Society Broad" in "Class," the play's final scene where Bukowski boxes Ernest Hemingway (Corcoran) and at last wins the attention of the press and of Elkin's comely company.

Though it's a small nit to pick, my one problem with South of No North was the use of Beck's beer as the brand of choice in Bukowski's refrigerator. What's with the top-shelf brew in the icebox of a writer who works at a meatpacking plant and steals whiskey bottles from bars when the bartender isn't looking? Budweiser would have been a better choice, or better still, any brand with the word "Milwaukee" in its name.

So, South of No North is recommended without hesitation to Bukowski fans everywhere who truly understand the power of positive drinking and who know that the game's only over until the fat lady comes back with more beer. The show's nine scenes of increasing weirdness are spread out over two acts and the intermission is crucial to anyone indulging in the Rep's reasonably priced refreshments.

The acting is admirable, the stories, like the best of Bukowski's writing, are both heartbreaking and hell raising. But, best of all, you can drink $3 beers in your seat along with the actors on stage. Though a third act would have been a good excuse to witness more stories of the buried life, and to keep the buzz going, all good bottles of booze must eventually run dry. So get to the 29th Street Rep and savor South of No North while it lasts because it's bound to be a while before a wine this fine comes around again.

September 2000

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