October 20, 2012
So can Sick Boy, Spud, Franco and the other alienated, drug-addicted characters of Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting," a novel seemingly inextricably linked to the Scottish character and national soul, be moved en masse from their hangout at the Leith Central Railway Station to Kansas City, Mo.? And, more important, can the Skagboys et al. survive the trans-Atlantic transition?
One might ask, why bother? "Trainspotting," which was written in 1993, is an iconic Scottish novel, especially becoming so after it was filmed by Danny Boyle in 1996. The Boyle movie was inspired by a stage adaptation by Harry Gibson, which is also the basis of Tom Mullen's new version (or, if you like, re-adaptation), "Trainspotting USA," now on stage at Theater Wit in a modestly scaled six-actor, unit-set commercial production. On Thursday, Welsh was in the house. Unbeknownst to many, he is married to an American and now lives mostly in Chicago. He also has a prequel out, "Skagboys," which is already a huge U.K. best-seller.
If you are greatly compelled by Welsh's work (and/or Boyle's movie), as am I, you likely will find "Trainspotting USA" an interesting and worthwhile 90 minutes, which is not to say it's an entirely successful 90 minutes. That's not because the stateside translation doesn't work (it's actually one of the things that makes the show so intriguing), but because the original dramatic adaptation was not all that great. The novel, of course, is episodic and comes with a variety of narrative voices. The stage version (neither stage version, frankly) hasn't yet figured out how to translate those episodes in such a way that the necessary cohesion pops and the stakes rise as they must. (Boyle solved those issues perfectly in the film.) On a mostly empty stage, "Trainspotting," a kind of hyper-realism, really, is very difficult to pull off.
Certainly, Mullen's production does not flinch from the intimate staging of the notoriously intense content of the work — there is sex, nudity and much wallowing in bodily fluids. There are some notably fearless performances, especially by Jenny Lamb, who throws herself into the variety of female roles that the piece demands. All of the male actors (Thad Anzur plays Frankie; Jay Cullen is Tommy; Shane Kenyon is Mark; Cameron Johnson is Spud; and Rian Jairell is Sick Boy) are perfectly fine. The piece just lacks, well, Chicago-style scenes, where actors can really show us their stuff. It ends up being too diffuse. Despite the material, the show keeps backing off from full-on pain and conflict.
As you watch the heroin junkies fall into a variety of traps of their own making, you keep asking yourself whether this jaunt to Kansas City works. Mullen has excised most of the Scottishisms and replaced them with references to Wal-Mart, varsity cheerleaders, Megabus, strip malls and Snooki.
Frankly, I think it needed to go further because Mullen really hasn't solved the spatial differences between these two worlds — one a pedestrian-friendly place where you can get everywhere reasonably easily, the other an automobile-dominated world where passenger trains are few and the prairie stretches for miles. That needs attention. But Mullen's thesis — that the American Midwest has many of the same identity issues as Scotland — is fascinating and, I kept thinking, overdue for consideration.
Perhaps the Midwest needs its own Midwest Nationalist Party, which can look after our starved collective soul. Certainly, we have our heroin users.
If you want to think about that as you watch lost souls shoot up, then "Trainspotting" is your show. It's a hugely admirable project, even if you can't quite see these guys existing, try as you may, because the outside edges of their world are not sufficiently defined. Mullen opened up a need for a new context, a new back story, and he has to go further in its definition. The actors also play a little older, frankly, than is ideal. You end up with questions about how they could all possibly be still be in this place, although you might ask that of such folks at any time in any place.
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $32 at 773-975-8150 or trainspottingusa.com