Monica (Christine Dulong), a go-getter songwriter and Glasgow’s "young Jewish entertainer of the year," at first seems a poor match for snarky rocker Ian (Graham Bailey), who hides out in his bedroom noodling on his guitar and taking slugs from a flask. ("Can you blame me?" he asks. "Have you seen the public lately?")
DYNAMIC DUO Graham Bailey and Christine Dulong in Rooms.
But we know better. As soon as Monica thrusts herself into his dim bedroom — and hires him as musical accompaniment for lyrics she’s been commissioned to write for a bat mitzvah — we have a pretty good idea of both the fair and foul times that are in store for them in Rooms: A Rock Romance, written by Paul Scott Goodman and his wife Miriam Goodman. First staged in 2003 but set in late 1970s Glasgow, then London, and finally New York City, this slight but sweet musical is part love story, part nostalgia trip. It makes its regional premiere at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, under the direction of Craig J. Faulkner.
Fueled by Monica’s insatiable fame-lust, she and her rather ambivalent musical partner go from playing bat mitzvahs to raging at London punk clubs as the duo the Diabolicals; from there they make the charts and home in on Manhattan. The show chronicles them as their partnership transcends mere music, following them through the series of eponymous rooms in Glasgow, London, and New York that hold them.
These rooms are suggested by the constant repositioning of one weathered door on wheels, which Monica and Ian push and pull across the stage as they negotiate their relationship. Other than the protean door, the set consists only of a series of beds that stealthily appear and disappear through trap doors. This minimalist staging is not just clever and sharp, but also evokes the many-layered ethos of memory as it collects and revisits a life’s myriad settings.
We’re also moved through time and space by the show’s music, which begins with Who-ish riffs and later ventures into punk-rock power chords (and is performed by a fine pit band); as well as by a series of projections (designed by Jeff Cady), which reaches its apotheosis in a montage of posters and photos of the Misfits, Black Flag, Iggy Pop, and Sid Vicious that eventually speeds up and dissolves like melting celluloid.
The lovers’ near-opposite personalities are in near-constant abrasion — sometimes pleasurably, sometimes painfully — and Dulong and Bailey, who appeared together recently in the Rep’s fine Rent, inhabit them gamely. Bailey’s Ian has a defensive armor of irony that yields to barely veiled devotion, and Monica, in Dulong’s hands, tempers her bombastic and perhaps somewhat overwritten ambition with precious moments of wry self-awareness.
Still, after a while their characters seem to be moved forward by a series of predictable stock plot points — alcoholism, bulimia, a betrayal in one family, a pregnancy, a death in another family — rather than by substantive character evolution. That, coupled with the rather artless lyrics (representative rhymes include "farce" with "arse" and "mishap" with "crap"), makes the show feel a little like Rock Opera-Lite. It’s the fault of the script and not the actors, whose energy and charisma are as wise and mighty as they can be.