‘Wild Horses’: Music and memories, in a karaoke bar

Wild Horses NJ Rep

SUZANNE BARABAS

Estelle Bajou stars in “Wild Horses,” which is at New Jersey Repertory in Company in Long Branch through March 25.

“Wild Horses,” a new play that is currently being presented by New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is basically a one-woman monologue, though it takes a while for the story to begin. Fifteen minutes before showtime (audience members are asked, ahead of time, to be sure to get to the theater early), actors start walking onto the set. It’s a cozy karaoke bar in “Anywhere U.S.A.,” 1996 (that’s what the program says) with a jukebox, neon beer signs, a dartboard, covers of old vinyl albums on the walls, and a pay phone (remember those?).

Ten or 12 patrons take turns singing Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and so on. They’re good singers, for the most part; still, the other patrons barely pay attention, and chat and laugh among themselves. Their conversations are, for the most part, inaudible to the audience, signalling that the play has not really started yet.

Soon enough, though, we get to the main order of business. Most of the patrons have taken a turn at the mic by the time the time Estelle Bajou’s character, identified in the program only as Woman, steps up. But instead of singing, she talks. And talks and talks, telling a coming-of-age tale about herself, back when she was a teenager, more than 20 years previously.

Some of bar’s other customers stick around, listening. But they drift off, from time to time, until Woman is alone.

Unfortunately, the story that playwright Allison Gregory gives Woman to tell is not a terribly compelling one.

It seems, more than anything else, like a Hollywood idea of what a 1970s coming-of-age story should be.Gregory gives Woman, in her teenage years, some quirky girlfriends, a seriously dysfunctional family, and a crush on an oblivious dreamboat. Teen Woman and her friends get into some mischief, but she also finds something of a cause, or purpose, in her dead-end small town, and the story ends on a hopeful, uplifting note.

The teenaged Woman is a good character— a confused but soulful mess of adolescent contradictions. But the other characters in the long story she tells are cartoonish.

All we know about one of the teen Woman’s best friends, for instance, is that she’s clumsy and speaks in a funny voice. The boys she knows — except for the one she has a crush on — are all callow jerks. We only get a very shadowy picture of her parents and sister; it would have helped to have at least one other fully developed character in the story.

The karaoke setup enhances the drama of the story only in a very subtle way. As Woman tells her story, she occasionally mentions pop hits of her teenage years— David Essex’s “Rock On,” Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” etc.— and we hear snippets of them, emanating from the bar’s jukebox. Plus America’s “A Horse With No Name” actually figures into the plot.

I guess the point is that music — even when performed karaoke-style, or heard from a tinny jukebox in a crowded bar — has the power to evoke all kinds of memories.

“Wild Horses” will be performed at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through March 25; visit njrep.org.

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