1969: The Second Man
Concept, music and lyrics by Jacob Brandt
Book by Dan Giles
Through Sunday, Sept. 8
Next Door at NYTW
83 East 4th St., New York, New York
Nytw.org, or 212-460-5475
By GWEN OREL
Great timing: just before the release of Ryan Gosling’s “First Man” film about Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, comes “1969: The Second Man,” described as a “folk-rock fable for the runner-up,” Buzz Aldrin.
Aldrin recently tweeted a picture of himself with the flag on the moon, in a kind of answer to the flag plant being absent from the Gosling film.
The song-cycle with a limited run at “Next Door at NYTW,” a festival that takes place at the 65-seat space next door to New York Theatre Workshop, imagines Aldrin’s envy and depression at not getting the credit for being one of the first men on the moon. Aldrin was second to step off.
This seems based on truth: Aldrin did go through a period of hard times in the 1970s, and his depression was documented in Aldrin’s 2010 book “Magnificent Desolation.” But it’s a tough task to make an entire show out of this mood, and “1969: The Second Man” does not succeed, despite some impressive musicianship by the six band members/actors.
Seriously, is there anyone who has not heard of 88-year-old Buzz Aldrin? He’s hardly obscure. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; was awarded the highest honor by the Space Foundation, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award in 2006, and of course, Montclair, where he grew up, renamed Mount Hebron Middle School the Buzz Aldrin Middle School in 2016.
But that’s not what this show is about. Dan Giles’ book is as much about imagining Buzz Aldrin as it is about him. The show begins with creator Jacob Brandt telling a story about how when he was a child he thought he was a genius because the moon followed him. Then, he learned that it only seemed to. Later, he shows us a picture he treasures of the astronaut that he’s glad he got when Aldrin still signed autographs.
It’s hard not to feel that this is a very young show, one of those shows where the audience is all under 30 or over 55, all friends and parents.
We do learn that Aldrin’s mother committed suicide, that Aldrin sold cars for awhile, and battled depression himself. But none of that is new.
Despite the occasional sharp observation – NASA liked to send up “handsome rectangles” as astronauts is a nice one – we never feel close to the title character.
The best part of the show is an enacted scene between Aldrin and Armstrong, following a publicity tour, in which Aldrin confesses he’s “chasing his own tale,” and Armstrong makes him promise to stay in touch. Then, we learn the scene never happened.
Most of the show is not done in scenes, but in choral narration.
There is no build. Here’s a song about this. Here’s a song about that (“Takeoff, “Zero Gravity; Moon Facts and Fictions”).
All of the singing and musicianship is out of this world (pun intended).
Creative effects are surprising in such a small house. Balloons give a feeling of no-gravity. (Production design is by Oona Curley, co-scenic designer is Daniel Prosky and co-lighting designer is Stacey Derosier.) And we see the moon-landing projected on the drums, a nice touch indeed. The band members wear costumes suggesting space suits: some reflective material here, a jumpsuit there (designs by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene).
But since there is nothing to wait for, even the gorgeous music and the short 80-minute length drag.
Despite an interesting germ, the show feels unfinished and somewhat unimagined. A person walking down the street compared the show to a Wikipedia page. That’s a little harsh – but not far off.