Photo by Russ Rowland
I think that it is safe to say that there have been more than a few productions in the history of theater that had more drama off-stage than on. Diva: Live From Hell is a brilliant new one-man musical detailing the exploits of Desmond Channing, a high school drama student, whose exploits off-stage would probably make much of Broadway fare seem rather tame in comparison.
With book by Sean Patrick Monahan and music and lyrics by Alexander Sage Oyen, Diva is set in The Seventh Circle, a night club in hell. In an infernal incarnation of Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence, Channing is condemned to perform his cabaret act over and over again (there have already been over a million performances). The act recreates Channing's career as President of the Drama Club at a public high school. His leadership and regular assignment of leading roles seem secure until the arrival of transfer student Evan Harris.
Channing takes Harris under his wing until - in a whiff from the Bette Davis/Marilyn Monroe classic All About Eve - Harris subtly undermines Channing and, horror of horrors, usurps him as the head of the Drama Club. Hell hath no fury like a diva scorned, so Channing plots his revenge against Harris with permanently disastrous consequences for them both.
Although technically Diva is a one man show, it doesn't feel like one. Monahan has a definite gift for mimicry to the point where other characters in the plot (teachers, other students, etc.) seem to have a palpable presence. At several points in the performance I attended there were audible gasps from the audience at plot points dealing with Harris, indicating an involvement with a character that Monahan's talent made seem tangible, even though Evan was physically nowhere to be found. One also senses that behind Monahan's mimicry is a deep psychological insight into the characters being mimicked.
The songs by Oyen are clever and vibrant and flow seamlessly with the script. Monahan delivers the songs with élan and a well-honed, confident voice. He seems a natural performer. The scenic design by Dan Geggatt and Caitlyn Murphy is atmospheric, and Daniel Goldstein's direction contributes to the liveliness of the evening.
I recall reading somewhere that novels are a form of diffused autobiography. I think the same is probably true for a lot of plays. Monahan is still a young playwright, apparently only a few years out of college. As he moves beyond academic settings it will be interesting to see what other trenchant observations he develops from different environments.
Although the general tone of the musical is spirited, there are several serious themes lurking in its tapestry, including the dangers of excessive ambition and rivalry. Another moral is that there are hells to which a person can be condemned, and there are hells of one's own making, and the latter can be just as sulfurous as the former.
Diva: Live From Hell is playing through April 9 at Theater for the New City located at 155 First Avenue in Manhattan.
The musical is a precocious achievement for Monahan. The script and his performance demonstrate a laser-like intelligence which would warrant keeping further track of his career.