by Josh Gross
Alley Rep's new play, Levi Middlebrooks: Back 2 Boyzee, which opened Aug. 22 at Visual Arts Collective, isn't exactly a play in the strictest sense of the word. It's sort of a musical, but could just as easily be described as a concert or as a really big car accident you slow down to rubberneck at on the freeway.
The show chronicles the comeback of Levi Middlebrooks, the "pudgy" member of fictional boy band Kinect4, who after a breakdown is attempting to make it in the world of Christian rock. But there are two big problems: The first is that people only want to hear "the hits," not the new stuff. And second, Middlebrooks wasn't exactly the talent of the group.
The show plays out in real time like an actual concert with radio promos, banter and sound issues. Though there is a progressive story told through the original songs, much of it comes in the form of between-song banter and a VH1 Storyteller's-style segment of the show. Like dual playwrights Jason Haskins and Evan Sesek's last play, Voices From the Boise Hole, much of the play is comprised of monologues, though there is some back-and-forth between Middlebrooks and other people involved in the show, including a frog puppet that doesn't know when to shut up.
The songs are ... well, they're not good. And not just stylistically. Lead actor Aaron Kiefer's guitar skills are portrayed as dubious at best. And while that certainly doesn't make the songs pleasant to sit through—some are downright painful, actually—that in large part feeds the narrative of the show.
But what drives the play is the steely eyed determination of Kiefer, who holds nothing back in the role, bounding on stage and wheezing through dance moves beyond both taste and his physique. Though there were only a handful of people at VAC for preview night, Kiefer sold it like it was a packed house—something even pro musicians struggle with in the face of empty seats—and perfectly teetered his character's motivations between hope and desperation.
There is a strongly comedic schadenfreude from seeing Kiefer's performance as a play and as satire, but as the show progresses, it becomes much darker. It's still a play, but it's one that is, at times, deeply uncomfortable to watch—in the best possible way.
Levi Middlebrooks: Back 2 Boyzee plays at Visual Arts Collective through Saturday, Sept. 1. More information and tickets are available here.