Dallas-based performance artist Dalton James fills his newest one-man show at the Swiss Avenue Theater, Wet Willie Loves Pyro, with all kinds of personal details--failed romance, family deaths and conflicts, childhood dreams, a leaky air conditioner that nearly drives him mad.
At least, we assume that these are personal issues, based on the undeniable passion with which James conjured them onstage. It says a lot about this young man's ability that such mundane details somehow never feel mundane because of the clear connection James makes to a larger mythology.
Unfortunately, these knife-edged observations make up only about half of Wet Willie Loves Pyro. The other 50 percent ranges from the merely competent to the disappointingly self-indulgent. Those audience members familiar with James' strong performances in works by other playwrights might not have the patience to ride the unpredictable roller coaster James offers in his latest outing. Anyone else who is willing to encounter this artist on his own uneven terms will discover that Dalton James lacks the courage of his own considerable talent. Which is to say, just when you're grooving with the guy on some startling, moving observation, he retreats behind a wall of cliched performance artist mannerism. I can only liken the result to being fed a tranquilizer--Dalton's less-inspired forays into movement and music--only to periodically receive a sleep-wrecking jolt of pure electricity--his amazing ear for poeticizing the intimate recollection that we all share, not to mention an ability to flow from one mood to another without sabotaging the show's ambitious themes.
Wet Willie Loves Pyro follows the disintegration of a romance between lovesick, water-borne barfly Willie and dashing firefighter Pyro, an Irish rogue who sweeps Willie out of the watering hole and into a world of tattoos, dragons, and devastating blue eyes.
Willie and Pyro eventually move in with each other, but the two mix like, well, water and fire. Apparently, Willie is an alter ego of James, a creature who too often finds himself gasping for oxygen on the shore. Pyro is the fascinating Other, the foreigner, the brave adventurer who connects with his lover in ways that are epic but never quite personal. Eventually, in one of the show's most thrilling sequences, Willie will follow the boyfriend who abandoned him, Pyro's axe in hand, into a fire-breathing dragon's lair, and witness a gory scene that will change his life forever.
Along the way, Dalton stops to make many references to our city, including "North Dallas bitches," Oak Lawn, and neighborhood bars. He also weaves in stories that we can't help but assume are autobiographical--working in an insurance company by day, being a performance artist by night; mourning with a grandmother who has just lost her husband of decades (the program dedicates the performance to "T.I. Devalcourt, My Grandfather"); and having a fundamentalist brother who works for a potato chip company and can't quit talking about the rapture during a brief visit.
How does all this fit together? That's the question that nags even the most generous viewer. The biggest obstacle to enjoying James' performance is the way he heedlessly shifts from one persona to another, erasing the borders and making audiences work too hard to find the thread which connects each vignette. It's there, but you get the sense Dalton James himself hasn't located it yet. Audiences even halfway familiar with self-penned one-person shows take it for granted that the different characters we see represent different parts of the individual onstage. The performer cannot make this assumption. He must draw clear distinctions among all the characters he creates--which Dalton does between WIllie and Pyro, but rarely among them, himself, and a couple of other characters he introduces--so that the audience will understand precisely where these fragments fit together and where they scatter.
Wet Willie Loves Pyro cries out for an editor, a second party who appreciates the skills of Dalton James even as he or she mercilessly identifies and excises those moments where he hides his humanity behind performance art flourishes. James has written several original songs for this show, and he performs them, headset microphone poised firmly over his mouth, with a measured, mannered conviction that suggests a rule-book recitation. He never embarrasses himself, but he also never transcends his own self-imposed limitations. Case in point--"I Want To Get Under Your Skin," a ceremonial lament to a beloved fish companion who expects a deeper relationship out of Willie than society will permit. James is oblivious to the fact that he has already pierced the skins of Willie, Pyro, and attentive ticketbuyers when he concentrates on the swing from ecstatic to tragic that characterizes most relationships. The song is superfluous.
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Many of the childhood recollections that insinuate themselves into James' grand scheme are compelling. He connects the dots between kids and adults in ways that are blasphemous and downright revolutionary. He careens into giddiness while remembering the most exciting mail event of the year--the arrival of the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalogue--and then subtly shifts the spotlight from the colorful toy pages to the male models who pose in nothing but white cotton briefs. Suddenly, the adolescent sexual urge folds into that mindless need for the latest cool toy. The wish list of an individual will change as he or she grows older, but the fresh hell of wishing does not.
When he presumably shifts to the adult Dalton, chronically late on the rent of a cheap apartment, he transforms a leaky air-conditioner unit into a poetic obsession reminiscent of Poe's The Raven. In James' account, one man is driven mad by the discordant notes struck by two different drips. They sing a similar prophecy of chaos for the world--a trickle from this man's air conditioner will build to a torrent and destroy everything.
Even when he bemoans his skills at cruising and maintaining relationships, Dalton James harmonizes smoothly with almost everyone's insecurities about dating. You don't want to dismiss him as just another guy who needs to get laid, because his heartbreak is too scarily familiar. To put it broadly, I think Dalton James would benefit from less Laurie Anderson and more Spalding Gray. He spins a potent saga with poetry and occasional searing pitilessness ("If you let me go, I promise to miss you"); many of his poetic descriptions, like Pyro tracing a capital "P" in the knotty barroom surface, resonate like a bell ring. His poetry and acting are better than his songwriting and choreography, but he manages to carve an effective, sometimes brilliant romance using all four. If James can just learn to be a bit more selective with his material, a tad more disciplined in his presentation, he will set the world on fire.
Wet Willie Loves Pyro runs through December 14. Call 522-9646.