Photo by Bill Cooper

It’s hard not to like The Car Man, director-choreographer Matthew Bourne’s glancing homage to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen; the movement in this dance spectacle, while not especially innovative, lovingly reveals a sinewy, power-driven milieu without becoming mechanical, and Bourne’s longtime production designer, Lez Brotherston, is blessed not merely with an eye for perspective but also with a vision for fable. Brotherston endows The Car Man with an Ed Ruscha–like landscape of gas station, diner and open space — a mythic horizon where possibility and the inevitable collide. If only Bourne had invested the show with as much thought, The Car Man might have become a wordless meditation on the nature of passion and betrayal. Instead, we never quite shake the feeling that we are spectators of a louche fashion show that looks tough but plays it safe, that displays fire but not heat, all because its creator mistakes iconography for iconoclasm.

This Adventures in Motion Pictures production moves the story from 19th-century Seville to “a small Italian-American community” in an Eisenhower-era state of mind called Harmony. Now, Harmony may be small, but Dino Alfano’s garage is huge, making Ford’s River Rouge plant look like a Jiffy Lube by comparison. And, with Dino’s adjacent bar and grill, this garage has obviously replaced Harmony’s town hall, grange and shopping district as the locus of all intercourse, social and otherwise. This is where the mechanics work and shower (that’s how big the garage is), where their women saunter hornily about in summer dresses and pumps, and where the fragile lovers Angelo and Rita pitch woo.

It’s also where a handsome tumbleweed of a man named Luca drifts in for a job, he of chiseled jaw and abs. Luca is Neal Cassady, Val Xavier and Hal Carter all rolled into one — with 10 times the attitude. He is every hombre in a wife-beater who makes women stop going to church and men turn off their ball games. In other words, he is a bisexual tornado who sweeps both Mrs. Alfano and Angelo off their feet, steering the narrative to adultery and murder.

What shines through here are some of the features that have made Bourne’s reputation, particularly his ability to transmit a story through an economy of gesture. (The show’s roles are multicast; the night I attended, Alan Vincent played Luca and was everything you could ask for in the swaggering, sexy role, and the rest of the principal ensemble, which included Will Kemp as the vulnerable Angelo and Saranne Curtin as the sultry Lana Alfano, was excellent.) Bourne also reveals a psychic understanding of the silent Unsympathetic Crowd, ready to turn against the main characters, whether they were the swans in his Swan Lake or the selfish stepsisters of his Cinderella. Here, the mechanics and their girlfriends seem to be a joyless crew emerging from the boredom of small-town America. Bourne also cuts loose with his satiric humor — the nightclub scene in Act 2, in which Luca and his entourage are snubbed by a group of aloof beatniks (well, aloof small-town beatniks) is a disarming moment, made all the more poignant as Luca begins to comprehend the destructive emptiness of his life.

But it is at this point that The Car Man begins to drift in and out of James M. Cain territory. In fact, the resemblance between Bourne’s version and the original story, of a Spanish Gypsy who works in a cigarette factory and rolls men in her spare time, is very slight, and requires the reappearances of the Bizet-saturated melodies of composers Terry Davies and Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite to remind us where we are. In a strange way, Bourne and Bizet pass one another as each heads in the opposite direction: Bizet, whose uncompromisingly harsh work brought an unprecedented level of emotional complexity to Paris’ Opéra Comique in 1875, and Bourne, who translates this complexity into a gallery of jokey caricatures.

The problem is that we’ve seen The Car Man’s charms many times before, and they were frankly more charming when they were new. Sweaty-men-on-blacktop numbers? They’ve appeared everywhere from West Side Story to Gap ads. 1940s film noir sensibilities? They’re bottled and sold at any boutique that sells lava lamps and Jim Thompson novels. We’ve even previously seen the cross-gendered role-playing, in Bourne’s Swan Lake — which suggests he’s begun to recycle himself. Swan Lake was a perfect fit for Bourne and his cheeky revisionist talents; more important, it seemed to speak to something deep within Bourne’s soul. Cinderella, his show after Swan Lake, was an arresting effort to reinvent this fairy tale as a World War II story, but it lacked Swan Lake’s emotional urgency; The Car Man doesn’t even benefit from a serious attempt by Bourne to understand Carmen in modern terms, and leads us to suspect its creator pursued the project in order to justify its title’s two lame puns. (It’s subtitled, An Auto-erotic Thriller.) Even the name of the story’s town, Harmony, is a heavy-handed joke. Why not just call it Irony?

Finally, there’s something a little creepy about making the central character a man. Both Bizet’s and novelist Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen was simultaneously a new and old character: the sexual vampire of ancient superstition and the emancipated woman of the machine age. When she sings that “nothing is any use, threats or prayers” against her erotic power, she is defiantly announcing the dawn of a new age, and the Habanera becomes a counteranthem to the Duke of Mantua’s “La Donna è Mobile” in Rigoletto. Carmen is one of 19th-
century literature’s few women characters with the strength and complexity to be evil, and to replace her with a Tom of Finland cartoon is to reduce her significance. It’s kind of like staging A Raisin in the Sun with an all-white cast. Why not make Luca a woman, or a lesbian? Not commercial enough, I guess.

It’s still too early in Bourne’s career to predict where he will go next, a task made especially difficult because descriptions of his work often fall along the lines of what it is not — we know it is not ballet, that it is not traditional theater and that it is not gay storytelling. All we can tell about The Car Man is that it is not heartfelt, and it takes no risks. Its epithet may well be borrowed from Norman Thomas’ judgment of John F. Kennedy: all profile and no courage.

THE CAR MAN: An Auto-erotic Thriller | Directed and choreographed by MATTHEW BOURNE | Adventures in Motion Pictures at the Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through October 28

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