Gimme back the pure stuff | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Gimme back the pure stuff 

Transplanted to America, Irvine Welsh's tale doesn't offer the same high

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More of a methadone Trainspotting production than a heroin one

More of a methadone Trainspotting production than a heroin one

Cameron Johnson

As if to teach the rest of us a lesson in true Scottish thrift, Irvine Welsh has wrung a wide variety of uses from the material in Trainspotting, his celebrated 1993 novel about Edinburgh heroin addicts. There's the stage adaptation by Harry Gibson. And the movie, famously directed by Danny Boyle. Welsh released his own literary sequel, Porno, in 2002. And his 500-odd-page prequel, Skagboys, came out just last month.

And now, perhaps in honor of Welsh's relocation to the States, we've been vouchsafed Trainspotting U.S.A., an adaptation of Gibson's adaptation, rendered for the "American landscape" by Tom Mullen, who also directs the pedestrian—and worse, completely unnecessary—production running at Theater Wit.

The "American landscape" turns out to be Kansas City, MO. Welsh's little clan of dopers, dropouts, and sociopaths speak with midwestern twangs, work (when they work) at the local big-box outlet, and play basketball as opposed to soccer. Their brush with big-time drug lords takes place down Mexico way rather than in London. But beyond these trappings, things fall out pretty much as they do in the original tale. The narrator and main character, Mark, is a paradoxically wholesome junkie whose struggles to get and stay clean structure the action. He's surrounded by picturesque lowlifes like cunning Simon, simple Spud, empty Alison, and homicidal Begby.

Anyone familiar with Trainspotting's previous incarnations will find all the indispensable set pieces here—that parade of black-comic horrors epitomized by Mark sinking his arm deep into a filthy public toilet bowl in search of the heroin suppositories he crapped out during a bout of diarrhea. We see Spud inadvertently spray his girlfriend's family with shit. We're there when Begby goes ballistic in a bar, and when Mark wakes from a blissful night of lovemaking to find that the girl of his dreams has one alarming flaw. Of course, we're also present for the death that shatters Alison, to which the crew can respond only by cooking up another spoonful of diacetylmorphine.

Still, iconic as they are to any fan, none of these vignettes carries any real weight in Mullen's version. The Hippocratic command to do no harm should apply to adapters every bit as much as it does to physicians; Mullen violates it over and over again, in ways big and small (though apparently not without the author's permission, since Welsh is credited with having provided "new material").

Lots of the problems here are essentially directorial. One of the big ones is that Mullen never achieves the right velocity. Back in 1991, Lookingglass Theatre put up a production of Steven Berkoff's West that had raging gang members literally running up the walls. I flashed on that great show while I was watching Trainspotting U.S.A., and wondered why Mullen hadn't tried to bring a similar energy to this project. It certainly would've been appropriate: as languid as these addicts can get, they're also young adults with loads of shpilkes. In fact, the contrast between their dreamy highs and hustling, compulsive reality is the most significant motif in their lives. Or it should be. Yet the best Mullen can muster is some amiable hoop-shooting. No wonder the arm-down-the-toilet-bowl scene doesn't generate much of a charge when it comes—it doesn't have the necessary sense of urgency behind it.

Indeed, Mullen's cast don't even look urgent. Shane Kenyon in particular appears way too healthy as Mark. And since we never really see him do the lowdown stuff we know he's required to do to earn drug money, we never get a vivid understanding of what the stakes are for him and his pals.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on listing troublesome issues, from Mullen's weirdly sporadic use of voice-over to his decision to have Jenny Lamb play all the women's roles, which ends up sending the message that she's being objectified along with some of the characters she plays.

The crucial difficulty, though, is that Mullen never supplies a good enough reason for transferring Trainspotting from Scotland to America. Do we do serious drugs here? Sure. Do the drugs we do lead to death and despair? Most definitely. And is that a reflection of the death and despair that has come to saturate our economic, civic, psychic, and cultural lives? You bet. But we could've made those connections easily enough while watching a Scottish Mark go literally down the drain. Mullen's strategy doesn't open up any new dimensions. There's no high in Trainspotting U.S.A. No aha! On the contrary, the whole effort feels like it's been cut with baking soda.

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