There are times when casting rises to the level of performance art. In 2008, Mickey Rourke broke our hearts playing the battered, world-weary title character of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. It’s not that his performance wasn’t powerful. It was. But at the root of our experience was the aching reality that we were watching Mickey Rourke. We remembered him from the golden heyday of 80s bad-boy cinema. We understood his fall. Most importantly, we knew that his resurrection could never be complete. His boyish leading-man looks gone, the very borders of his face muddied by boxing scars and (apparent) steroid use, Rourke looked beaten, humbled. He bore a distant resemblance to the actor we once knew, and in every moment of his performance, he fought for the heights he’d once achieved. Mickey Rourke was The Wrestler, and it’s why we loved him.
Burt Young never looked a thing like Mickey Rourke, though they did have boxing in common. Born in Queens, Young built his career playing rough, working-class Italians—all urban grit and seedy gravitas. Like all great character actors, he has one of those exaggerated faces you just remember. A solid, round head on a thick neck. Large, expressive eyes, jutting lips. Burdened shoulders. He’s best known for his turn as the hardworking, hot-blooded Paulie in Rocky. But Young has been working onscreen consistently since 1970, with no signs of stopping. His early credits alone (far too many to list here) read like a primer on great 20th century drama: on TV, guest spots on M*A*S*H and Baretta; on the big screen, appearances in Serpico, Chinatown, the Rocky films, and yes, The Pope of Greenwich Village alongside one Mickey Rourke.
And so it’s with no deficit of nostalgia that audiences arrived on Sunday, January 5, 2014 at the Port Washington Public Library to watch the premiere of Young’s original solo performance, “Artist Found in Port Washington Flat.” What followed was a brave, lonely and stoic act of theater—not performed by the brash Burt Young of old, but clearly written by the burnished Burt Young of now: a tender, ardent storyteller looking back at life with a laugh that chokes in his throat. Were audiences shocked? Maybe. But Young, for one, isn’t afraid to be here now.
Only the playwright can tell us how autobiographical his play is at heart. The first character we meet him playing is an actor going by the name Arthur Taylor, because his given name was too ethnic (notably, “Burt Young” is also a stage name). Arthur enters singing “Silent Night,” clad only in a bathrobe, sagging shorts, and a t-shirt that doesn’t quite stretch down to cover an expanding belly. Arthur carries a gun. He explains, “Gotta be careful of the New York moment, take it from me.” After a quick perusal of the crowd, he concedes, “You don’t look too unsavory.” But tellingly, he also appeals for our patience with his story. As Arthur—or perhaps Young—puts it, “Life has taken a lot of things back.”
Inside Arthur’s apartment/studio (like Young, our protagonist is a painter), we meet a projection of Burt Young sitting in a chair—the personification of Arthur’s conscience. (“Don’t listen to a word he says,” Arthur warns.) The live Young and the projected Young interact for the duration of the show in a carefully-timed interplay. And to put it mildly, Arthur’s conscience doesn’t go easy on him. As Arthur struggles to tell his stories—and it is a struggle—his conscience calls him a “crackpot,” “baloney-head,” a “fat bastard,” and rants that Arthur is just “hanging on like fly paper.” At times he laughs at length, unkindly. He’s had it with this old man.
Arthur’s story is a sad one. He had a daughter who traveled to Africa and died. He never recovered from this loss. He had purchased a motorcycle, dreaming of traveling America with his beloved child in his side car. She was supposed to return home with “a trunk full of stories.” Instead, her father struggled alone with a machine he couldn’t manage, a powerful engine beyond his control. The two spoke on the phone. Until they didn’t. The tragic spin of another, far greater wheel.
It’s unavoidable, at some point in this review, to note that experiencing this show requires watching Burt Young, the actor, fight for nearly every word. He wears a headset, likely enabling someone to feed him lines as necessary (even the pre-recorded, projected Young reads from a clipboard). At times, he seems to struggle to push the words through his lips, like a workman. As a result, we lose passages. We hang on to the image of Arthur’s daughter studying for an exam in Africa. We learn most about his motorcycle. The rest, well, sometimes we just don’t receive the story that Young so urgently wants to tell. In this context, it’s quietly devastating to then watch Arthur’s conscience on the wall, telling the audience plainly, “This guy is completely gone.” Only Young knows for sure whom he is talking about.
Yet there he stands, still performing the labor of performance for us. Burly Burt Young, still on the job. Still taking hits, still swinging. It’s here that the work of the audience must begin. For those with the ears to listen, Young has written a searing play, worth the effort to discover, even to fight for—a slowly-spinning portrait of a man whose life’s purpose was lost decades ago. Arthur’s story is moving and his emotions are real. The voice of his conscience is often as funny as it is cruel. And the scenes in which the two of them agree and seem to nod together like the oldest of friends, well, that’s just a wizened playwright at work. There’s no shortcut to that.
So if we miss the magic in “Artist Found in Port Washington Flat,” it’s because we don’t have eyes brave enough to see it. It’s easy to critique Young’s stagecraft, to pick at an elder statesman for being elder. Don’t do it. Labor with this faithful workman, because his enduring appetite for his life’s work is noble. Watch for the moments when Arthur simply looks to his audience, searchingly. In those instants, welcome the shock in your heart of seeing the actor you know, still reaching for his heights. Tell me you don’t experience the charisma that made him a star. Behind those unmistakable eyes is a man, an artist, whose heart still beats fiercely, who has beautiful stories to tell however they will be told. “In my house, I do not say ‘No,’” Arthur says. And later, “To say ‘No’ to a vision is the toughest thing.”
There are times when the great truth of a story is its simplicity, the kind that can inspire you. Burt Young lives in a Port Washington flat, where he paints. The player in him still yearns to be found. You can find him, for one more performance, on January 10, 2014 at 7:30pm. One hour, 10 minutes. Free.
“Artist Found in Port Washington Flat” is at the Port Washington Public Library, One Library Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050,