Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 29 March 2024

Review: Dead Outlaw at the Minetta Lane

Minetta Lane Theatre ⋄ February 28-April 14, 2024

Audible Theatre launches into musicals with this weird and wonderful tale. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck
Andrew Durand and Jeb Brown in <i>Dead Outlaw</i>. Photo: Matthew Murphy (2024)

Andrew Durand and Jeb Brown in Dead Outlaw. Photo: Matthew Murphy (2024)

Dead Outlaw tells a story about a man and a mummy so crazy it feels like it must be the tallest of tall tales: Killed in a shootout in Oklahoma in 1911, the hapless outlaw Elmer McCurdy is semi-accidentally mummified when no one claims his body. Despite the fact that he was a truly incompetent robber (he once blew a safe through the wall of a bank, to have it land outside still 100 percent locked, not to mention the time he planned to steal a huge amount of money from the Osage people in a massive train robbery, and then boarded the wrong train with his gang), his corpse becomes famous–part sideshow spectacle, part cautionary tale–and he spends the next sixty years appearing in sideshows, schlock movies, museums, and finally as decor in an amusement park. It’s not until the 1970s, when a propmaster for The Six Million Dollar Man moves what he thinks is a puppet used to decorate a funhouse exhibit on the Long Beach pier, only to have McCurdy’s arm break off and reveal actual human remains, that Elmer is laid to rest–far more successful and famous in death than he ever was while breathing, but only as an archetype: the “real live dead mummy” that the paying rubes want to see. All of Elmer’s individual joys and sorrows, the many lives he led (he went by six or seven different names in barely thirty years), are irrelevant until the moment he’s actually laid in a grave.

Every word of the above is true–and the expert hands of David Yazbek, Erik Della Penna, David Cromer, and Itamar Moses have turned this story, filled with equally improbable detail (some of which is tweaked slightly, to be sure, but really very little), into what Moses calls a work of “documentary musical theater” that displays an irresistible mix of hucksterism, gumption, Americana, and pathos. Moses’s book is tightly constructed enough to appear as simple as a campfire tale, narrated by a grizzled narrator-cum-bandleader (Jeb Brown), but it’s doing a lot of sharp and clever work, even as it moves swiftly forwards with deliciously weird grace. 

Director Cromer has a gift for sketching economical character portraits and finding a buoyant humanity inside the smallest role, so while the show rarely lingers in any individual narrative beat, we feel that we get to know the players: Elmer, of course, but also his parents; the woman he almost loves, Maggie; Louis, the coworker who also loves Maggie; a pair of coroners in two different eras; the Native American runner who won the International Trans-Continental Footrace that traversed the length of the then brand-new Route 66; schlock film director Dwain Esper; and many more, all expertly played by an ensemble of eight. The performers are all excellent, particularly Brown (who integrates so seamlessly with the band that I was counting names in the playbill waiting for the eighth actor to show up for a good lone while) and Andrew Durand, as Elmer, whose stellar performance shows us both what Elmer could have been–he’s bright, charming, skilled with his hands–and what he becomes–self-pitying and self-loathing, a problem drinker and braggart who lashes out to avoid facing up to his own deep loneliness. And of course he then spends the entire second half of the show as a mummy in a coffin, somehow still intriguing to watch as a corpse, somehow less alone dead than he was alive. 

The structural spine of the piece is Yazbek and Della Penna’s music, played by a kickass honky-tonk band (which includes Della Penna on guitar, banjo, lap steel, and vocals), and fronted by Brown. The band, onstage for the whole show, fills the majority of the Minetta Lane’s relatively small stage, set up in a rustic wood box that feels like a tumbledown front porch somewhere. Arnulfo Maldonado’s design lets that box–like the songs–serve as the structural center, with actors climbing up onto its roof, pivoting the whole structure, and hanging from its pillars. Brown doubles as Walter Jarrett, the leader of the gang of bank robbers (with the rest of the band standing in for the rest of the gang) at whose behest Elmer does some seriously incompetent safecracking, but his main role is as narrator in both song and tale. 

The show’s original conception was as a song cycle with just enough of a book to string the songs together. But the finished piece has become a carefully steered narrative that leans on the songs to flesh out both its story and its character portraits, as the other actors weave in and out of the band: Drunk Elmer taking over the front-man role for an almost punk rock number as he blows up the life he’d almost carved out for himself. Maggie (Julia Knitel) realizing how little she knew Elmer after his demise. Coroner Johnson (Eddie Cooper) and his son Luke (Trent Saunders) reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs on the back of the dead outlaw. And–one of my favorites–”coroner to the stars” Noguchi (Thom Sesma) turning patting himself on the back into a lounge ditty complete with a little softshoe. (I say this even though Noguchi’s character may be the biggest liberty the piece takes: chief medical examiner for Los Angeles for many years, he did perform autopsies on Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Tate, and RFK, among many others, but he was actually the boss of the corner who autopsied McCurdy. Still–too great a character to resist.)

The songs draw from a range of American musical genres—honky-tonk, blues, rockabilly, country, a dash of punk, a few drops of sweet and plaintive lullaby, a romantic duet. And in addition to the music, Dead Outlaw has a vividly conceived sound design (the design is by Kai Harada and Joshua Millican, but the program also credits Isabella Curry for soundscape composition), as befits a show commissioned by Audible and destined to live out its life in podcast form. We start to feel the way sound structures the piece alongside music: the clink of bottle on glass and the thunk of glass on table as Elmer gears up for a fight; a mournful train whistle when he goes on the run; the ever louder explosions as he tries to teach himself safecracking on the job–and then, at the end, the sound of a concrete mixer filling in his grave. Elmer’s mummy won’t go on the road again.

The ephemerality of theater, like life, is both its chief joy and its chief sorrow. Elmer McCurdy alive laments that nobody knows his name; Elmer McCurdy dead loses his name for a good long while, but ultimately he gets that “epitaph all set in stone.” The Audible recording can be this play’s epitaph–and It’s oddly fitting that the first Audible musical comes as a story about remembrance, about what survives us. The recurring anthem of the show is a song called “Dead,” whose refraiin goes “Your mama’s dead, your daddy’s dead…and so are you.” It’s nice to think that this play gives Elmer McCurdy–and itself–one more shot at survival.

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Brooklyn Paper, and NYTheater now, and currently writes occasionally for HowlRound and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Dead Outlaw at the Minetta Lane Show Info

Produced by Audible Theatre

Directed by David Cromer

Written by Book by Itamar Moses; conceived by David Yazbek

Choreography by Ani Taj

Scenic Design Arnulfo Maldonado

Costume Design Sarah Laux

Lighting Design Heather Gilbert

Sound Design Kai Harada & Joshua Millican; soundscape composition by Isabella Curry

Cast includes Jeb Brown, Eddie Cooper, Andrew Durand, Dashiell Eaves, Julia Kintel, Ken Marks, Trent Saunders, Thom Sesma

Original Music David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 95 minutes


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