The ominous whine of a cello and violin fill the stage, punctuated by the pulse of an upright bass, as a young man on the side of the stage looks around, dazed. He swats at a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, stumbles backward, and soon encounters a man in black, who silently tries to hand him a green balloon.
This scene is the opening of the Yale Cabaret’s newest production, “Ain’t Gonna Make It,” a play about a 29-year-old man with stage III colon cancer. When a nurse matter-of-factly declares, “Zoloft will be good for the four-centimeter tumor in your bowel,” Eric has to come to terms with his imminent death. He tells the audience of his attempts to cope with his illness, breaking out into catchy, tragicomic blues numbers along the way.
Still, “Ain’t Gonna Make It” is far from a classical musical. The show takes a raw look at hospitalization, dwelling on the hallucinations brought on by Eric’s medley of pills and his moments of utter despondency. Eric muses aloud about how he must tell his mother and friends of his condition, lists all the things he will never be able to do, and searches for pity sex as a last-ditch effort to live a little. His dialogue is unpolished, with lines such as, “You know, hospitals are really shitty places to sleep in.”
The play attempts to capture the sick man’s state of mind by being, more often than not, slightly bizarre. The band members do not have fixed identities; they’re alternatively nurses, the voices in Eric’s head and audience members. Though the play sometimes goes overboard with its oddities — notably when a couple of the nurse-musicians start tap-dancing — its more experimental aspects are mostly successful. Multi-colored, often psychedelic projections on the walls — created, in part, with a couple of antique slide projectors — add a dreamy quality. Most importantly, the unexplained, silent Balloon Man repeatedly interrupts the stage action, deeply unsettling both Eric and the audience. He forces Eric to break out of his warped mental state and recognize what he’s headed toward.
“Ain’t Gonna Make It” is not heavy-handed in its rumination on death; bawdy humor and soulful music provide some respite from the uglier elements of the play. However, it still brings up some big, unanswerable questions: “Do you know how to die? I don’t know how to die,” Eric says at one point.
One doesn’t leave the theater with a concrete answer, but with an acute sense of relief that one can walk into the open air without finding a Balloon Man waiting.
“Ain’t Gonna Make It” will be showing at the Yale Cabaret, on 217 Park St., tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.