It is a fraught proposition to watch an artist imagine through his lens a piece of your own nostalgia. Midway through “Complicated Fun,” I had to simply accept that Alan Berks’ play about the “Minneapolis Music Scene of the Early 1980s” was not the story I would have told. And how could it be? Memories are mere images attached to random moments; drama is two hours of story confined to a stage, marked by a beginning, middle and end.
That said, Berks’ homage — his mixtape love letter to Minneapolis, as he calls it — struggles to generate the urgent necessity, the surprise and glee of an era that was full of it. Too often, his characters sound like human Wikipedias, in breathless conversation delivering a chunk of the history that they are living. The wincing taste of a precious after-school special flashes when the idea is being peddled that punk and funk were political antidotes to Reagan’s America. It’s just a bit too pat. Can’t rock ’n’ roll just be a great party?
“Complicated Fun,” which opened Saturday at History Theatre under Dominic Taylor’s direction, is a diffuse pageant. Its most human story revolves around a girl (Stephanie Bertumen) who finds her muse and her voice in the club music and record store buzz in Minneapolis, circa 1984. Bertumen’s rendering of the Replacements’ “Androgynous” near the top of the second act — playing her own guitar — is one of the play’s nicest, most honest moments.
Bertumen’s Girl competes for attention with record store clerks arguing over which band is best, First Avenue’s bombastic Steve McClellan (Josh Carson) fighting to integrate the club’s audiences with Prince and the Time and a gaggle of teens and hangers-on who serve as human scenery. A few of the era’s celebs are depicted in cameo spots. Skyler Nowinski and Joseph Miller are terrifically loud and sloppy as the clerks.
The greatest disappointment in this play about music is the music. Nic Delcambre fronts a four-piece band that creates weak echoes of the era’s songs and that serve largely as vamping backdrop to the conversations in the front of the stage. The sound system is woefully underpowered and not once did the vibe muscle into our heads with ear-shattering joy. Ricky Morisseau came close, singing Alexander O’Neal’s “Do You Dare,” and Delcambre was worth his measure in an acoustic solo run at Paul Westerberg’s “Here Comes a Regular.”
The redeeming grace in “Complicated Fun” is how Berks traces the music’s evolution — how the Replacements, the Suburbs and Hüsker Dü prefigured alternative rock and made record executives more receptive to Minneapolis bands. Would Semisonic and Soul Asylum have caught the wave without these pioneers? Perhaps, given the talents of Dan Wilson and Dave Pirner respectively, but it never hurt to associate yourself with the Twin Cities.
Still, the anarchy feels manufactured and held at some distance. The pulse of random moments has been confined to a kitchen sink drama. I really wanted it to be about the music.