Volume 75, Number 22 | October 19 - 22, 2005

“Bukowski From Beyond”
Through Nov. 1
Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam St.
Tickets from $25

Steve Payne channels Charles Bukowski in “Bukowski From Beyond” at the Soho Playhouse.

The barfly rises again—in Soho

By Lincoln Anderson

While Charles Bukowski has left behind a body of work that continues to remain immensely popular and relevant, Bukowski himself is gone, dead 11 years now. However, a new play, “Bukowski From Beyond,” is currently channeling the spirit of the great writer in a one-man performance at the Soho Playhouse.

Steve Payne plays Bukowski in a production directed by Leo Farley. It’s their second collaboration, a follow-up to “South of No North” from a few years ago, when Payne again incarnated Bukowski in a play based on the writer’s collection of stories of the same name.

The current production, as Farley describes it, is supposed to evoke a 1970s Bukowski poetry reading. Carl Riehl joins Payne on stage playing classical piano, the only type of music Bukowski had any use for.

Farley, 55, who lives at 14th St. and Seventh Ave. with his girlfriend, was a former Wall Streeter who always kept a foot in the theater. Deciding to leave finance, in 1988 he co-founded 29th Street Rep theater company in Chelsea. It was there one day he pulled Bukowski’s “South of No North” off the bookshelf and while sharing a bottle of wine with an actor in the company, realized with him that it would make for an interesting play. Farley subsequently became hooked on Bukowski and has devoured all his novels and some of his poetry.

The key to a Bukowski play, of course, was to find a Bukowski. Payne fit the bill, from his look to his life.

“I picked up Steve’s picture. I said, if this guy can act, he’s it — he can play Bukowski for a while,” Farley recalled.

A certain Oscar winner by the name of F. Murray Abraham also expressed interest in playing the writer and called to inquire.

“A young guy picked up the phone, didn’t know who he was; he got insulted, hung up,” Farley said.

“We could have had F. and ended up with Steve,” he mused. “Steve’s a lot easier, I think, to work with.”

In “South of No North,” there were seven other actors along with Payne who portrayed Bukowksi. Now, it’s just Payne.

Payne, 56, lives with his family on Downing St., where he is a superintendent for five buildings. (There’s a parallel there with

Bukowski, who was a postal worker for 20 years while pursuing his writing.)

Naturally, as Bukowksi, Payne is set up with a six-pack and some wine on the table to get him through the reading. In fact, Payne is a former drinker himself.

“We’ve been giving him a little O’Doul’s lately in his Heineken bottles,” Farley said. “He’s lived it — it’s in his face.”

Ultimately, though, Farley said, “I think Bukowski’s poetry is the star of the show.” There are sections from some of the author’s autobiographical novels, like “Ham on Rye” and “Women,” but it’s really the poetry — which, after all, is meant to be read aloud — that most impresses.

Farley admits a poetry reading as a show is a hard sell, but, he said, “I liked the simplicity of it. I stuck to my guns on it.”

Although Payne ad-libs a bit from time to time — at one recent performance he called a woman who was laughing uninhibitedly “cookie” — the idea is not to make it a laugh-fest or the Bukowski character into a buffoon, Farley stressed.

Although he may not be anywhere as mean as Bukowski was, Payne’s voice is deeper. Like this writer, Farley said he was surprised, almost disappointed really, at hearing Bukowksi in the documentary about his life, “Born Into This.” (A movie based on Bukowski’s novel about his early working days, “Factotum,” starring Matt Dillon, will be coming out next year.) Somehow the gentle, laid-back California drawl doesn’t jibe with the menacing voice in the writing.

“Here’s this tough guy, fighting in bars,” Farley marveled at the disconnect. “I was surprised [to hear his real voice] — but he’s still great.”

As for himself, Farley never lived the down-and-out life of getting rolled in alleys or living and fighting with “insane women,” like Bukowski.

“I certainly see the romantic side of life,” Farley said. “But I would not want to live that way. Skid Row, no that’s O.K. — I’m O.K. here on Seventh Ave.”

As for “Bukowski from the Beyond,” Farley says, it’s “running on fumes” — i.e., being produced on a shoestring budget — but they’re going to ride it as far as it can go. As for what’s next, he said, “There’s another Bukowski show that I think is in there; you could show segments of his life — at the track, at the bar, at the urinal….”

The possibilities are endless.

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