Reissue Review: U-Men, “U-Men”

My first exposure to the bizarre genius of U-Men came when I first tracked down a vinyl copy of the scene-setting C/Z Records comp. Deep Six back in the early 90s. I was a budding teenager then and, thanks to Nirvana, discovering what Poneman and Pavitt dubbed, with more than a hint of cynicism, “The Seattle Sound.” Deep Six – out in ’86, a good six years before the majors stormed the region – offered a great glimpse of the scene in its infancy: Green River, Melvins, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, you get the idea. Weirdest among them was U-Men, a kind of art/garage rock that was to Washington’s mutants as Big Boys and Scratch Acid were then to the outcasts in Texas.

U-Men, from all accounts, lorded over Seattle for much of the 80s. In the words of Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm, “They ruled a bleak backwater landscape populated by maybe 200 people. They were the only band that could unify the disparate sub-subcultures and get all 200 of those people to fill a room.” After a brief run on Homestead, which later went the way of the buffalo, U-Men split and largely stayed anchored only in local lore – until today.

Today, Sub Pop released U-Men, a long-long-long-long-overdue, three-LP/two-CD collection reimagining everyone’s favorite Pacific Northwest avant-grunge band ruling Seattle as it was 30 years ago – before Singles, before Pearl Jam, before Nevermind. And, for fans of 80s punk or those wanting to trace the maturation of grunge as a concept, it is mighty, mighty good.

It’s easy to catalog the finest tracks on the set, which includes the band’s entire studio-recorded output – remastered – plus five unreleased songs, all of it curated by producer/guru Jack Endino. But what’s more important is the dressing. U-Men were punks at their roots – though Tom Price’s guitar flirts with Television as much as it does the grunginess of Green River – but they also had funky undertones, a bizarre sense of humor, and an audacious, scene-stealing frontman in John Bigley. These songs were less about movement – though there’s plenty of that – than they were about sound-painting. The bass bounces, the jagged guitar cuts and drums pound, and Bigley wails like a man possessed. And they sound like they’re having a fuckin’ blast doing it.

On the new set, there’s artsy, pre-grunge barn-burners (“They,” “Juice Party” and “U-Men Stomp”), rawk with hooks (“Last Lunch”), mood-transforming blues-rock that gently presages Price’s work with Monkeywrench (“Shoot ‘Em Down,” “Whistlin’ Pete”), Hype punk-centerpieces (the excellent “Dig It A Hole”), even Dead Milkmen-esque pop-punk before its time (“Blight”). And I’m sure I’m not including everyone’s favorites. That’s the point. The three-LP/two-CD set is exhaustive and it’s exhaustive for a reason – it’s stating an overwhelming case for considering U-Men as integral to the fabric of Seattle as The Sonics. And, listening to U-Men and being transported back to the first spin of that Deep Six comp., I think the case is a strong one.

Popdose Exclusive Video Premiere: Bodies of Water, “Dark Water”

Bodies of Water emerged from L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood in the mid-00’s with Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink, a winding trip through the most fervent sounds of weird America. The group is fronted by Meredith & David Metcalf.  The most recent album, Spear in the City is an album of expansive and apocalyptic gospel music, pulsing baritone-led chansons á la Jacques Brel and Scott Walker, but with the rhythmic groove and vocal polyphony that’s been the group’s signature since its beginnings.

Popdose featured the album this past July and now they’ve unveiled a video for “Dark Water”.  Give it a listen and see what you think.

Spear in the City is currently available

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Thirty-Six

Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross:  Episode Thirty Six

The shows get longer – by demand and some necessity – so Jon and Rob are here to oblige, with some smarts and humor to get us all through some very trying times.

This week’s chat includes a breakdown of “Trump vs Tillerson”; new Foo Fighters album is out; coming up are Husker Du and Chris Bell boxsets plus the Chris Bell bio;  Bob Mould is back on the road and Rob Ross is going in to record (!); “#metoo” and the other trite/empty gestures concerning sexual harrassment; THE album of 1984 – Reckoning – which makes this “1984 retrospective” a duet; favoritism of the NFL in putting a call against teams when they are clearly wrong; Jon’s movie review of “Thurgood Marshall”; Rob talks about one of his “perfect albums”, Kilimanjaro by The Teardrop Explodes and of course, “In Our Heads”.

So why waste time watching T.V. when you can listen to something substantial – where knowledge is power and laughter is king?
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Thirty Five

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

Single Review: Jeff Betten, “Learning It as I Go” b/w “Small Doses”

Anybody as active in a scene as Misra Records head and Pittsburgh indie-rock impresario Jeff Betten has to have a soft spot for the music. And, man oh man, does he prove it and then some on a must-have 7-inch single of vintage pop of his own creation, whose release Nov. 16 will be celebrated this Saturday during an event at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

It only takes two songs but Betten totally nails it, offering up textured and nuanced pseudo-ballads full of strut and soul. “Learning It as I Go” – with its jangly guitars, bouncy pop bass and bar-room piano – owes a lot to pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles and Wilco circa Being There, though Betten’s self-assured delivery even suggests shades of early Bowie. The B side, “Small Doses,” is equally addictive, slightly boozy and totally informed in Betten’s murmured, borderline-seductive vocals, not to mention, again, the perfectly complementary guitar and piano. This man has shown through his curating and management skills that he knows good pop when he hears it; turns out that sensibility carries over to crafting good pop, too.

Dan Knishkowy, he of NY alt-country band Adeline Hotel, does a great job with sometimes-twangy, always-emotive guitars on the single but the star, far and away, is Betten, a former avant-folkist – see Western Pennsylvania – who, in his more direct incantation now, alternately calls to mind, again, Bowie and, in the more somber sing-song of “Small Doses,” The National’s Matt Berninger. Impressive stuff – easily stands among the best pop released in Pittsburgh this year.

Want to track down the single? Head to James Street, where Betten will be joined Saturday by Nathan Zoob (Wreck Loose), Andre Costello (Cool Minors), Dan Styslinger (delicious pastries), Justin Nelson (Searights) and Dhruva Krishna (Manic Soul). Tickets are $10 and include a free copy of the vinyl single.

Album Review: Primitive Race, “Soul Pretender”

It’s hard not to view Primitive Race’s sophomore outing, Soul Pretender, as the next chapter in Chuck Mosley’s epic comeback story. On the record, out Friday on Metropolis, Mosley is positively radiant, sounding better, sharper and more engaged than he has since the heyday of Faith No More’s Introduce Yourself. After years of being relegated to the struggles of “solo” outings and hard-to-find Cement discs, Mosley here is raspy – he wears his age incredibly well – and utterly menacing as he lurks behind lurching guitars and the occasional twinkle of a keyboard, the landscape darker than his previous work. And, damn, does it work!

The record is a change of course for Primitive Race, more of a band than a project assembled by founder Chris Kniker. While Long In The Tooth and its self-titled full-length debut peddled in a mode of industrial music – think Wax Trax by way of Ministry, which is appropriate, given the appearance herein of Ministry collaborator Mark Thwaite – the new record introduces post-punk and even the adjacent-pig-fuck of Scratch Acid and The Jesus Lizard into the mix. The result is a heady stew of angular guitars and throbbing drums (here courtesy of Melvins icon Dale Crover), and it’s pretty invigorating stuff.

The record is not without its shortcomings, though they are minor and don’t get in the way of the thing sounding like a beast possessed at times. The mix is a little muddy and rough, leaving Mosley and Crover – the real reasons some people will be tuning in – low in the limelight. This sometimes suits Mosley, whose lends a kind of slick but bassy rumble to the proceedings during soaring choruses, but doesn’t do wonders for Crover, who operates best when he can chew the scenery and, no diss to King Buzzo intended, catch the listener’s ear.

Standouts? There are tons, from the morbid (the sinister start to closer “Dancing On The Sun”) to the catchy (the hooky “Catch Up,” the bass-spined groove of opener “Row House”) to the furious (muted-guitar march of “Turn It Up”). That’s not even to mention excellent offerings like the singing-it-to-the-skies anthem “Cranial Matter,” which has been stuck on repeat in my head more or less since Mosley previewed the track for me in rougher form back in March. This is a record of songs that will capture your attention.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Primitive Race will continue to morph for its third outing or Kniker and company will continue exploring the sonic terrain they map out on Soul Pretender. If Kniker knows what’s best for him, though, he’ll continue to enlist Mosley as a vocalist and songwriter. This man, rising from the ashes of his past, is reaching for the stars and hitting them.

Album Review: Sean Kelly, “Time Bomb, Baby”

So we’ve previewed and interviewed Sean Kelly of A Fragile Tomorrow in anticipation of his solo debut release, Time Bomb, Baby and it can be clearly said this album is quite a departure from the sounds we’ve grown accustomed to with the band.  Being the (admitted) music hungry fan – and more importantly, student – that he is, Sean Kelly plumps from the early ’80’s to get a sound and feel that fits the songs.  If you combine the best production elements that were perfected by Hugh Padgham, Steve Lillywhite and Nile Rodgers and mixed in the various guitar effects that were so prevalent during the start of the decade, you’d be automatically catapulted back to that time with one listen.

“We’re Getting Older, Brother” has a very laid-back feel; languid and milky, driven by organ and synth punches; Mr. Kelly’s singing has evolved and matured into a very warm croon and is clearly defined here; “Ticking Like A Time Bomb” has that flanged/chorused sound that was so prevalent in the early-to-mid ’80’s (think U2 and Simple Minds, although some of the guitar textures have – to me – a very Athens, GA feel); “Let Me Be The First To Find Out” charges in with heavy drums with a lot of soundscapes filling in the colors – in a lot of ways, it reminds me of China Crisis or Heaven 17, but not in a dance groove; more of a contemplative manner.  “Gold To Me” has “single” written all over it; a straight “pop” song that would have given Duran Duran a run for their money – or at least Bowie during his hold on the charts with Let’s Dance; “You Started It”, with its keyboard pattern and taut drum patterns sounds like it would have been in regular rotation on WLIR 92.7 (New York “new wave” radio reference – a legendary station) sandwiched in between The The and Tears For Fears, circa ’84 and “Syncopation”, which is more of a pastiche than a reimagining of an ’80’s track, is the perfect combination of all the early ’80’s synth/pop/mecho-drum styles.

A tip of the hat has to go to Mr. Kelly for being so astute in his dissection of a style and take it to create something new by sounding familiar.  He’s breathed new life into big production and painting a complete canvas for a simple song to become complex.  And at the same time, he’s hopefully given himself a new manner to introduce to A Fragile Tomorrow so that their next release will be an aural surprise and stylistic shift.


Time Bomb, Baby is currently available

Popdose Flashback: Five ’80s Cult Films and Their Imagined Sequels

Blade Runner 2049 did something unbelievable. No one, including me, expects a belated sequel to be any good. Remember Crystal Skull? But 2049 took a 35-year-old movie and  created an artistic triumph.

The best thing the new Runner does is it uses the original as a stepping stone for an entirely new experience. Most belated sequels, like Tron: Legacy or The Godfather Part III, are content to repeat the early films with some minor tweaks just to give audiences more of the same.

Blade Runner 2049 acknowledges the original film and brings back Rick Deckard, but it never focuses on him and the past three decades of his life. Instead, it imagines the world of the original film having to face its own future. How is everyone living in a world where the replicants have practically replaced humans? Where romance is created by artificial constructs? Where artificial humans are getting into race wars?  The original Runner was bleak enough, but this film is even bleaker. It would be hard for someone to look at the 2019 of the original film and imagine someone referring to it as the “good old days,” but I could see it happening once I saw the follow up.

Blade Runner 2049 made think about other ‘80s cult films that introduced audience to strange, visually striking worlds. They only became familiar after we watch the film more. What would some of those worlds look like after thirty years?

I’ll be discussing five ‘80s cult films that introduced unique worlds whose futures I’d like to see. How did the world change from the first film? What issues are they facing? What happens in a person’s daily life?

Streets of FireFamed action film director Walter Hill made Streets of Fire to recapture his youth. It’s the 1980s imagined as if the 1950s never ended. The cars are old, everyone talks like they’re a greaser, rock and roll is still considered rebellious and rude, and biker gangs are still the single biggest threat to the buttoned up society.

The film isn’t so much about thematically exploring the 1980s. The plot – about a mercenary named Tom Cody who has to rescue a Pat Benatar-esque rock star, Ellen Aim, after she’s kidnapped by bikers – is as simple as any classic western. Rather, Streets of Fire is the sort of film that the “Morning in America” crowd would love. Wasn’t it so much easier back in the good old days, when the worst you had to worry about was Willem Dafoe in leather overalls? And who cares if the woman kissing her ex in the rain is a trope that was exhausted before the outbreak of World War II? In this film’s universe, it still carries the weight of something sensual and exciting.

So what happens as time marches on in this world? Even if pop culture never changes, surely the people inhabiting this unnamed industrial metropolis would eventually have their simple world view broken from the outside. How does this town survive the Cold War? Or MTV?  And what happens when Tom Cody and Ellen Aim find out they’re too old to be considered the masculine hero and the sexy rock superstar?

And who replaces them? The two lead characters were the manifestation of 1950s rebellion. That rebellion continued even after the previous generation grew a gut and ran for higher office. Who is the rock superstar of this new time? I’m picturing someone who is better known for their stage shows than for their music. I also think that the new era would see feuds between fans of different rock sub-genres.

I know there is a pseudo sequel featuring Cody called Road to Hell. I have not seen it but I am not sure if it would satisfy my questions –mostly because so few people who made the original are involved with it.  Besides, Blade Runner had several follow ups before 2049 was released. The world of Streets of Fire is so intriguing that there are no doubt other avenues people can explore.

Streets of Fire has always been on my list as of the most underrated films of all time. It’s a gorgeous film with a great soundtrack that really sets the mood. And, despite its clichéd western tropes, Streets of Fire is still a very engaging film with some interesting characters. It feels like a movie that’s made by aliens who only saw Rebel Without a Cause moments before they came to Earth. I would like to see more of that world.

Photo courtesy of

LabyrinthThe original Labyrinth is nominally about a young woman facing the new adult emotions as she’s growing up and taking on new responsibilities. That woman, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) accidentally summons Gareth (David Bowie) to take her baby brother away. She must solve a seemingly impassible maze to get him back.

A Labyrinth sequel would be very difficult to make, especially now that some of the biggest talents of the original (Jim Henson, David Bowie) have died. But Labyrinth hinted at a world much bigger than either of them – a world that is well worth exploring.

There were moments in Labyrinth that hinted at something far darker that could be used in a sequel. For one, the Labyrinth has existed for millennia and not everyone has managed to get through it. For another the creatures in the goblin realm have to live under Gareth’s rule. If he’s willing to kidnap humans for entertainment, imagine what he does to them.

And what happens when that world is disrupted? First, David Bowie’s death would be a starting point for a Labyrinth sequel – namely, who Gareth’s successor would be. Additionally, Sarah has presumably reached middle age and is raising children of her own. It’s likely she has become increasingly obsessed with her own youth as she faces her mortality. But the person that replaced Gareth is likely to be an immature tyrant who is more concerned with causing chaos than providing leadership to his kingdom.

A belated sequel to Labyrinth would ideally be about that dynamic between an older Sarah and a younger Gareth replacement. It’s easy to pine for one’s youth, but it’s a lot different to remember how little you knew when you were younger. A sequel to Labyrinth would have Sarah, desperate to reclaim her glory days, fighting against the young tyrant who now controls the maze to save one of her own kids. To make it more interesting, Sarah easily solves the riddles of the Labyrinth. A more difficult challenge would be for her to make Gareth’s successor understand why he’s wrong and in confronting how her experiences have made her better, even if she can’t grow younger.

Labyrinth survived its initial rejection (the film was a box office bomb) by being endlessly inventive and by being honest about youth. It’s time to explore that from the other side. There would unquestionably be holes in the film, but that can be part of the point. A sequel would be trying to recapture the talents of people who are no longer with us. But that just means there’s still a lot to say using the universe they created.

Photo courtesy of Den of Geek

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension-Buckaroo Banzai, for many years, seemed like it would inevitably get a sequel. There’s one teased during the end credits and famed indie cult director and pot smoker Kevin Smith promised a TV revival featuring the further adventures of the Hong Kong Cavaliers.

Unfortunately, a sequel to Buckaroo Banzai is unlikely to exist outside of thought the creator’s imagination. But it’s easy to understand why the film’s fans have been desperate to see more of the Reagan Renaissance man. Buckaroo Banzai predicted the rise of the Marvel universe and the public’s obsession with perfect humans who are slowly destroyed by their own hubris. Banzai was a superhero by any stretch. He was a master at whatever he set out to accomplish, but his exploits nearly destroyed the world.

The original film is about an experiment gone wrong in which rock star/particle physicist Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller in his second most ‘80s role) brings back an alien life form from the titular dimension. Banzai defeats the threat and manages to save the world despite calls from the president asking if it’s OK to go ahead and destroy Russia.

The film is steeped in Cold War politics, in which there’s a definitive hero and a definitive villain. But that’s not the world we currently live in.  In the future, The Hong Kong Cavaliers have likely been forced to take on a more pro-active approach, but also have to realize that the world at large views their activity with high suspicion. I think the main villain would be an Alex Jones-mutant who rallies against the Cavaliers on the grounds that they’re secretly controlling the world. Which, even if they are, is only to save it.

And what of Buckaroo? It would be easy to say he’s settled for a quiet life in academia, but that wouldn’t fit his style. If anything, I picture him as the first man to record a platinum album on the moon and who is only forced to save the world because he has nothing better to do.

Buckaroo Banzai is a strange film that has, somehow, become more logical over time. Why shouldn’t aliens from another dimension threaten our world? It makes as much sense as anything else on the news. We need to see more Buckaroo Banzai and learn how heroes should act.

Photo courtesy of Gizmodo

Akira – I’m actually surprised that there’s never been an Akira sequel. It doesn’t need one to complete the narrative, but there are so many opportunities to build on what the first film discussed. Akira practically created an entire visual style that’s still being used to this day – even Blade Runner 2049 copied its lead.

The plot of the original film – about psychic warriors, city destroying monsters, young rebels who can defeat the villains, and a bizarre futuristic vision – has been copied so much that it will probably be lost on a modern audience. But it still makes an impact because the world is so fascinating. It captures the fear of Japan that their traditional values would be destroyed.

The original Akira ends with the main characters all riding off on broken motorcycles into an unknown future – a future that is completely open to anything. Tokyo has been destroyed – twice – and it was the biker youth gang that had saved the world the second time. How do rebuild a city where the old guard failed? It’s obvious that the future of Akria’s world would be in Kaneda’s hands. But NeoTokyo wouldn’t be the only aspect of that future. What of the alternate universe that now exists thanks to aforementioned evil Tetsuo? Does the universe he and Akira created interact with our own?

I imagine that Kaneda would remain a very important figure in this future, but would still be struggling with his new role. I also doubt that scientists would ignore the psychic powers people are developing. Have they figured out a way to trigger them and to properly contain them?  Maybe there’s now an entire culture of ESPers who are still looked upon as outcasts.

Akira is one of the most influential animated films of all time. It introduced me to a world that I want to revisit. I think there are ways the film could accomplish this task. I want to see what happens to Kaneda’s generation. Eventually they will rule the world and will have to face that fact.

Photo courtesy of The Nerdist

Repo Man – In many ways, the future of Repo Man’s world would be our own. But the Los Angeles depicted in the film isn’t the 1980s that existed in our world. But there are enough differences to suggest that the future of Repo Man’s world would be vastly different from the real 2017.

The original film was about a teenage punk music fan named Otto who gets a job for a car repossession agency who becomes involved in a group that suggests every single conspiracy theory was true. Aliens are among us, interplanetary travel is possible, and there’s a guiding force that controls everything.

The world in Repo Man is so banal that a life of repossessing cars is the most intense thing imaginable. Shops are filled with bland products, people are addicted to watching bad TV, and any foolhardy rebellion (like robbing a convenience store) is doomed to fail – until the end, when people realize that aliens exist.

Much like They Live, any sequel to Repo Man would have to discuss the fact that humans are now aware there’s a power controlling their lives. Do they rebel? The whole point of the film is that people are far too lazy to do so. More likely, any spiritual sequel would be more focused on how humanity is still distracted by petty activities. Otto would probably be back trying to share the truth to people, but would be roundly ignored.

Strangely, Alex Cox did try to make a graphic novel sequel that postulated Los Angeles was an experimental prison colony being maintained by aliens. Otto (now Waldo) finds out about it while trying to take a trip to Hawaii. I have not read the novel, but it does address several of the elements that would undoubtedly be addressed in a sequel. Still, aliens would no longer be a secret so the fact that people would be understanding is unlikely. I would think that people are still trying to fight, even if Otto ends up watching televangelists on TV all day.

Ultimately, a sequel to Repo Man would be about the futility of people trying to create a new world. It would probably be the one sequel on this list that’s very similar to the original, but that would be the point. All punks eventually had to get day jobs.

Photo courtesy of Eureka Video

EP Review: The Gotobeds, “Definitely Not a Redd Kross EP”

Pittsburgh’s The Gotobeds are offering their two cents on a vintage blast of punk energy – and it is mighty good.

Dubbed Definitely Not a Red Kross EP, the new 7-inch EP, out tomorrow on Atlanta’s Chunklet Industries, is a six-song cover of – yep, uh huh, you guessed it – Redd Kross’ high-octane debut EP from 1980. Though the original EP was released as a “Red Cross” 12-inch shortly after the McDonalds birthed the Cross from the ashes of The Tourists, the new version is a modern work-over, even if it sounds thoroughly steeped in late 70s punk mythos. The Gotobeds capture the youthful vigor of Red Cross – were the brothers McDonald even out of middle school in 1980? – but flesh things out with modern details, like guitar solos and grungy bridges as informed by Pavement as they are by Black Flag or Circle Jerks. Steve would be proud; Steve should be proud.

One of the obvious standouts on the too-short EP remains the punk anthem “Annette’s Got the Hits,” with the choppy Thee Mighty Caesars guitars giving way to muted dismay, and there’s not a dud throughout, which is a good thing, since the 7-inch is over in the blink of an eye. Redd Kross knew to keep its songs short – the longest track here runs 1:26 – and The Gotobeds are wise not to clutter the landscape; it lends a Minutemen-like audacity and immediacy to the proceedings.

This is The Gotobeds’ second between-LPs affair this year alone, and it falls about a month after the release of the excellent odds-and-sods collection, Fucking in the Future +5, on Comedy Minus One. The Gotobeds clearly are making statements here and ones worth repeating – this is a band that is not satisfied containing their finer moments only to studio projects. Can’t wait for the next Sub Pop offering to get your blast of 21st century punk? Catch ‘em live. I’ll be at Gooski’s waiting for ya.

Exit Lines: “Mary Jane”

Halloween is just around the corner, and New York stages have been setting the stage for frights. The Broadway adaptation of 1984 was so upsetting, audience members were fainting or fleeing during its setpiece, where Winston Smith is gorily tortured in a coldly rendered torture room as the lighting turns eye-searingly white. I was marked “safe” after this event, if barely. (This was co-star Reed Birney’s second outing in a “haunted house” play; the first, the outstanding prize winner The Humans, is going on tour, and is very highly recommended.) The simultaneously revived In the Blood and Fucking A (a title that terrified The New York Times), two of Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ earlier plays, were awash in the residue of bloodletting and fucking, and wrought unsettling changes on their source, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.

Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane is more chipper, its darkness, if I can call it that, hidden in a back room or concealed under a hospital bed sheet. Its protagonist, a single mother trying to make ends meet, is devoted to her two-year-old son, Alex. But Alex can hardly reciprocate her love. Born at just 25 weeks, Alex is plagued by ailments, including cerebral palsy, that require round-the-clock care. We never see Alex, just hear the whir of the machines that keep him breathing. We learn much about him, however, from Mary Jane, who gives voice to all caregivers, which we all inevitably become.

There’s an autobiographical component to Mary Jane, but Mary Jane’s struggles with work, bureaucracy, and her own conflicted heart are universal. One nugget of my father’s advice to me was “do the right things and the right things happen” and Mary Jane is always doing the right thing by Alex, patiently, kindly, and with a sense of humor. But, as we all learn, the right things don’t always result. By the second half of the play, Alex has taken a turn for the worst, and the storyline shifts from Mary Jane’s apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, to a hospital room, a stark and stunning transformation arranged by scenic designer Laura Jellinek.

Mary Jane could conceivably be a one-woman show, a monologue of keeping despair at bay in a near-unmanageable situation. Gratifyingly, it isn’t, and indeed all five of the performers and most of the production team, including director Anne Kauffman, are women. It makes a difference. The 100-minute play finds time for all these female voices, who offer counterpoint to Mary Jane’s unflagging cheer. Ruthie (the veteran Brenda Wehle), the building superintendent, worries about Mary Jane’s health. Home care nurse Sherry (Liza Colon-Zayas) provides backup in negotiating the system. Brianne (Susan Pourfar), a new mom adrift in circumstances similar to Mary Jane’s, may be Mary Jane in an earlier phase, before acceptance became the order of her day. Appearing late in the play, Kat (Danaya Esperanza), as a hospital aide, offers a temporary lifeline, as a floodgate of emotion opens. I was devastated–how beautifully this whole play works, with such concerted effort from all involved.

One woman, however, is the beating heart of Mary Jane, and that is Carrie Coon. From the first time I saw her, as Honey in the 2013 Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I knew she was something special–so did Hollywood, which after that Tony-nominated turn cast her in Gone Girl, and gave her breakout roles on TV’s Fargo and The Leftovers. (So did co-star Tracy Letts, who married her.) Brimming with can-do spirit and optimism, breezing past every disaster (Mary Jane forgives Alex’s father for leaving), Coon doesn’t make Mary Jane a paragon of virtue, or settle for a mere everyday heroine. She makes her sweetly, gently, agonizingly human.