As well-conceived and executed as Catastrophic Theater's latest Daniel Johnston-inspired production is, it's also more than a little discomfiting. Based on an oral letter the famously troubled singer-songwriter recorded and sent to a friend while living in Austin during the early '80s - the entire first act and much of the second takes place in a practice room at the UT school of music - Life Is Happy and Sad puts Johnston's abundant neuroses front and center without illustrating how (or even if) they influence his creative process. Therefore, much of the play feels more voyeuristic than illuminating. This is not necessarily director Jason Nodler's fault; after last Thursday's performance, Nodler told Aftermath that all the Life Is Happy and Sad dialogue (monologue, really) came directly from that tape letter, which Johnston's unseen confidant gave him after an Austin performance of Nodler's first Johnston-based production Speeding Motorcycle. That letter's composition takes up the entire first act, leaving former Groceries/Bring Back the Guns singer/guitarist (and first-time actor) Matt Brownlie onstage with only that tape recorder, which really works, for company.
Aftermath has only met Johnston in person a couple of times, but based solely on those encounters and Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Brownlie has him down. His Johnston is a jittery ball of nerves whose brain is working much faster than his mouth can keep up with. His mannerisms feel dead-on - pacing around the practice room, staring holes in his sheet music, chugging from an ever-present can of Mountain Dew, compulsively starting and stopping the tape recorder. Seated at the piano, more shouting than singing his way through Sly & the Family Stone's "Everyday People," Brownlie/Johnston resembles a proto-indie-rock Beethoven. In the letter, Johnston vents his considerable anxieties over auditioning for a band whose acquaintance he has recently made - more or less Happy/Sad's lone plot device - and the fact that he has sent several such letters to his friend and received nothing in return. When Johnston asks into the microphone for this friend to "make my life a little less lonely" or "Do you think I'm funny? Do you think I'm crazy? Do you think I'm all washed up?" your heart goes out to him. But once the more objective part of your brain begins factoring in Johnston's subsequent institutionalizations, arrests and medication-induced severe health problems - the rest of the story, in other words - the "TMI" alarms start going off.
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The second act introduces this band, portrayed by members of Houston glam-rockers Roky Moon & BOLT, although whether they are real or fantasy is never explicitly stated. It seemed to Aftermath that this part of the play - Johnston and two band members sitting on a couch chatting it up Tonight Show-style; an Iggy Pop-like performance featuring Captain America on bass, Underdog on drums, Tiny Tim on lead guitar and the shades-clad Johnston leaping into the audience - takes place in Johnston's head.
The characters "Happy" and "Sad," anthropomorphic representations of the comedy and tragedy theater masks darting on and offstage, were one possible clue. But more than that, all Johnston's stammering insecurity and pervasive self-doubting that dominated the first act has magically vanished, suggesting the Daniel of Act 2 is how he sees himself rather than how he really is. Life Is Happy and Sad closes back in the practice room, with Johnston rehearsing with the now-uncostumed band. The scenario seems plausible enough, reconciling the real and fantasy Daniels enough to provide something at least approaching closure. But overall, the play - which begins its final week of performances tonight - reminds Aftermath of something we heard or read once and now wish we could remember where (Google is no help at all): "It's a statement all right, but I'm not sure what it's saying." Note: Rumor has a "very special guest" showing up for a walk-on role in Friday's performance. Do the math. Life Is Happy and Sad runs 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday at Diverseworks, 1117 East Fwy. Tickets are "pay what you wish"; $20 recommended. For information see www.catastrophictheater.com.