PUP’s production of Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” is a solid, polished staging of a show that is neither. Larson, made more famous by his second show, “Rent”, died suddenly in 1996, which was, in some ways, convenient since it’s difficult to imagine him getting work in any setting other than 1990’s New York.
Both “Rent” and “tick..tick..Boom!” are productions built in obsolescence, and in 40 years the only value they will have is kitsch value. If “Rent” defines a generation, as I keep hearing it does, “tick, tick…BOOM!” is the story of just one member of that generation, and, as such, comes off as a smaller, hollow version of the more well-known show.
The fact that the show began as a one-man monologue is the solipsism that defines the expanded musical. The main character, Jon, whom the composer named after himself, struggles with an unsuccessful career composing musicals (or did that meta just blow your mind?), compounded by his anxiety over his swiftly-approaching thirtieth birthday (the onomatopoeic title is supposed to represent his biological clock, or something deep like that).
An engaging Jonathan Schwartz tries his best to make Jon likable. However, when he spends the whole show bitching about being poor, and an entire song singing about how much he loves Twinkies, it’s hard to see him as being anything other than a would-be decent guy made intolerable by a persistent belief in his own talent and a protracted emotional adolescence. (The small cast is rounded out by a charismatic Liz Dengel playing Susan, Jon’s girlfriend, and Billy Hepfinger as Michael, Jon’s childhood friend, who abandoned “la vie boheme” for job security on Madison Avenue and who – in a shocking twist! – turns out to have contracted HIV).
It’s this adolescent attitude that makes Larson’s work so insufferable—and so popular. While it was surely not Larson’s intention, “Rent” was perfect for a generation of earnest 13 year-olds who knew that stodgy Westchester and Millburn would never be able to appreciate their revolutionary talents. (“tick, tick”’s Jon character, in an uncharacteristically self-aware touch by Larson, hails from White Plains).
When “Rent” finished its 12-year run last month, there were plenty of public lamentations for the vanished New York of illegal sublets and starving bohemians. But with the end of Wall Street’s golden era, “tick, tick…BOOM!” may soon seem even more dated as the conflict between the artistic yet risky career and the ridiculously lucrative finance job that any half-witted frat boy could perform may no longer exist. With little temptation to take entry-level banking jobs (that no longer pay six figures), will we all become spoken-word poets and experimental performance artists? Perhaps Bohemia is dead only when it becomes the only obvious choice.