Lifeline stages expressionistic take on ‘Midnight Cowboy’

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Zach Livingston plays Joe Buck and Adam Marcantoni plays Ratso Rizzo in the Lifeline Theatre production of “Midnight Cowboy.” (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

There is something innately foolhardy about trying to create a stage adaptation of “Midnight Cowboy,” one of the truly great and unforgettable movies of, and about, life on the streets of New York in the 1960s. So it’s worth noting from the start that Chris Hainsworth’s Lifeline Theatre adaptation, directed by Christopher M. Walsh, makes no mention of the screenplay, and credits only the book by James Leo Herlihy that was its source.

I haven’t read the book (and haven’t seen the movie in years, though I still have vivid memories of Dustin Hoffman checking the now extinct pay-phone booths that lined Manhattan’s streets, in search of forgotten coins). But watching Lifeline’s uneven production, with its strange lack of a genuine New York aura (this story is, after all, set in the period when Times Square was truly sleazy), the only conclusion to be reached is that it is meant to be a far more expressionistic story than the movie.

Gregory Madden is a preacher and Zach Livingston is Joe Buck in the Lifeline Theatre production of “Midnight Cowboy.” (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Gregory Madden is a preacher and Zach Livingston is Joe Buck in the Lifeline Theatre production of “Midnight Cowboy.” (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

In fact, its tale of Joe Buck (Zach Livingston), a naive, essentially good-hearted hustler who comes to the big city by way of Texas and Albuquerque, and “Ratso” Rizzo (Adam Marcantoni), the crippled homeless man who befriends him, should be seen as an urban variation on George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” — a sort of hallucinatory study in the most desperate forms of loneliness, accompanied by the often hollow biblical promises of salvation and redemption.

‘MIDNIGHT COWBOY’ Somewhat recommended When: Through April 10 Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Tickets: $40 Info: (773) 761-4477 http://www.lifelinetheatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Joe is a good-looking young guy whose unstable childhood is suggested in a series of flashbacks that include the years when he was raised by his grandmother, Sally (Anne Marie Lewis), caused a scandal with a high school girl, spent time in the Army and finally decided to make his fortune as a stud in cowboy boots and fringed jacket, servicing the rich, unsatisfied women of Manhattan society. While this might seem cynical, it turns out that Joe, quite the innocent, is invariably the one who gets “taken.” He certainly doesn’t have the savvy acquired by “Ratso” (a terrific turn by the gaunt and sharp-edged Marcantoni), the child of Italian immigrants who has spent much of his life on the mean streets, and has the broken health that comes with such an existence.

Joe gets taken by a shrewd female executive (Megan DeLay), and he showers a young prostitute (well played by Heather Smith) with the closest thing she will ever know to love and gentleness. When, out of desperation and confusion, and the sicko manipulations of the sadomasochistic hustler Perry (a chilling Jack Miggins), he begins to offer his services to gay men (including a couple of characters played by Micah Kronklokken), things take a turn for the worse. But it is Towny (the excellent Patrick Blashill), the hyper-talkative intellectual and self-hating, middle-aged mama’s boy, who will pay the real price.

Megan DeLay and Zach Livingston in the Lifeline Theatre production of “Midnight Cowboy.” (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Megan DeLay and Zach Livingston in the Lifeline Theatre production of “Midnight Cowboy.” (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Throughout, Joe has encounters with O’Daniel (Gregory Madden deftly suggests a preacher/philosopher without a church), who clearly senses the moral decay in the world while also riffing realistically on the essential drives of man.

Livingston, who brings ideal looks and guileless manners to the role of Joe, deftly captures the slow burn that turns him into a man he does not want to be. And his final scene with “Ratso,” as they travel on a bus to “the promised land” of Florida, is beautifully played.

For some reason, Joe Schermoly, the ordinarily superb set designer, has failed to capture the all-important squalor and seediness of New York. And while individual scenes in this show accrue power, Hainsworth and Walsh start off with overly cartoonish characterizations, and seem unable to give the story the full forward drive needed to sustain continual interest.

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