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“Dead Outlaw” reviewed

Audible’s stated aim is to make plays that are just as complete and compelling sonically as they are in the flesh (and then distribute recordings of them in podcast format). Close your eyes in the theater and, ideally, you should experience the satisfaction of an old-school radio drama, with its quaint, crisp clarity of speaker and setting and the clinks and whistles of Foley. Dead Outlaw is the first musical commissioned by the project, which now has a physical home at the Minetta Lane, and in both content and form the show lends itself to the mission. Elmer’s incompetence as a criminal aside, you can still hear the Lone Ranger cantering through his world—coconuts clopping into an old ribbon mic—and in telling his story, Moses, Yazbek, and Della Penna have smartly deployed the kind of grizzled, kindly-yet-wily narrator who’s been dispensing stretched truths around campfires ever since Homer.

Armed with guitar, lopsided grin and pleasantly gravelly drawl, and a Tom Waits–ish porkpie, Jeb Brown is a born tall-tale-teller. Serving as emcee, he keeps Elmer’s yarn spinning along, hopping into the story when he needs to and leading a wallopping six-piece band. Della Penna himself—whose métier is Americana—is there on the banjo and lap steel, and along with a pianist, a drummer, a bassist, and another guitar hero, he and Bush give the production the feeling of a rip-roaring folk rock concert. Cromer and scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado enrich this atmosphere by packing the band into a roughhewn, two-sided box in the center of the stage. With exposed beams in its plywood walls, Salvation Army decor, strands of twinkle lights, a crocheted throw on the piano, and a patch of eggcrate acoustic foam in the corner, the box is a kind of basement or garage — the perfect place for a band to rock out. But it also has the feeling of a shipping crate or a boxcar: It’s on heavy casters, and it can be rotated a complete 360 by the actors, who can then shimmy up a ship’s ladder to hang out on a stretch of overhanging roof. Cromer makes graceful use of the stage’s periphery, too, but it’s this cramped, colorful, versatile container at the center of things that really excites, giving the production itself a feeling of portability and transience. Like the mummified Elmer, this whole kit and kaboodle could be packed up and sent on the road, a sideshow in a crate just looking for the next paying crowd.

Playing a parade of townsfolk, employers, lovers, lawmen, showmen, coroners, conductors, and thieves, Cromer’s agile ensemble of eight all lend Dead Outlaw legitimate vocal force and charm, along with a sense of playful pizazz. They’re here to tell a wild tale and not to get too precious about it. Thom Sesma is especially delightful in an old Hollywood–style showstopper in which his up-till-then sedate Dr. Thomas Noguchi—the high-profile L.A. coroner who examined Elmer’s body when it reappeared in 1976—busts out into full “Stairway to Paradise” diva mode. As he schmoozes his way through “Up to the Stars,” a razzle-dazzly celebration of the glamours of forensic pathology, he channels everyone from Gene Kelly to Yakko Warner. In an equally compelling number, much more sincere than satirical, Trent Saunders lights up the story of Andy Payne, a runner from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma who won the Trans-Continental Footrace in 1928 — running from Los Angeles to New York City in 84 days as part of a promotional stunt for the newly inaugurated Route 66. What does Andy Payne have to do with Elmer McCurdy? Turns out the dead outlaw tagged along as part of a traveling sideshow affiliated with the race — because, reasoned its profiteers, who wants to watch a bunch of exhausted runners when they can see some carnival freaks and mummies?

Though Payne’s story might initially seem like a tangent, it’s actually central to the heart of Dead Outlaw, and not just because of Saunders’s blazing performance. From one perspective, both McCurdy and Payne are footnotes in history, but what Moses, Yazbek and Della Penna, and Cromer are doing is both unearthing stories that have been, for one reason or another, buried in dust and pondering the cultural forces that shaped these strange tales of striving. Everything has a politics, and Dead Outlaw doesn’t have to spell out its skepticism of the American mythos. Underneath the bizarre facts of Elmer McCurdy’s story lie our national drive to turn everything into a product; the brutal division of people into either successes or suckers; the glamorizing of violence and individualism; the moral bankruptness, aimlessness, hopelessness, aggression, and gullibility behind the cowboy façade.

As Elmer himself, the excellent Andrew Durand becomes a kind of allegory for inarticulate, disgruntled American masculinity. Why does he turn to crime? Because life’s been kind of tough and, goddammit, this isn’t what he was owed. In a smash-up-the-hotel-room drunken rock fest, he sings about how he “killed a man” just for his “big fucking mouth”: “No gun, no knife / Just with these hands I took his life.” Durand is howling with machismo, the band is roaring — and the whole thing is hilariously undermined not only by the fact that Elmer’s story is made-up, but also by the way he chooses to cap off his assertions of bad-assitude. What’s the most badass part of all? “I killed a man / I killed a man,” sings Elmer, then, with intimidating emphasis: “Back in Maine.” Later on, his swagger gets nastier and more resentful. In “Indian Train,” Elmer argues to a group of fellow ne’er-do-wells in Oklahoma that they should rob the armored train that brings the Osage nation the oil money it’s owed by the American government: “That Indian train is filled with money,” he snarls, “They won’t see a dime if it’s up to me / They’re rich, we’re poor, that just ain’t funny / We’re taking it back, let the white man be.”

The Band’s Visit, with its delicate emotional virtuosity and the quiet romanticism of its music, might seem at first blush to have little in common with the raucous, folksy, bourbon-and-arsenic-tinged Dead Outlaw. But the shows share cultural curiosity, nuance, and compassion. If Elmer were alive today, he’d probably be waving a tiki torch and wearing a red baseball cap. And, just as he was then, he would still be a victim — the gull of a system that’s fed him lies about race, money, and power. For almost half of the show’s 90 minutes, Durand stands upright and stone-still in a coffin, his body manhandled and danced around, posed and prodded, leered at and leaned on. It’s a body that, in actuality, was displayed outside schlock moviehouses (“And, appearing in the film, and in the lobby, real-life victim of syphilis Elton McMackins!”) and on a Long Beach pier, where children shoved ticket stubs into its mouth before the proprietor had its jaw wired shut. It’s not that we’re encouraged to sympathize more than we should with the living Elmer so much as we’re made both to marvel and shiver at his corpse’s long, grim fate — which in turn throws a sorrowful light back on his humanity. With wit and vigor, Dead Outlaw investigates a country obsessed with liberty and heroism, where the free market smiles darkly over it all, hinting that most of us are probably worth more dead than alive.