Terri Girvin has been serving alcoholic beverages to New Yorkers for twenty years. In Last Call, her one-woman show that starts this Thursday at IRT theater, Girvin tells the story of all your nights out from the other side of the bar.
Though a lot of material from Last Call was drawn from her time at WXOU Radio, The Magician, and Tile Bar in Manhattan, I got to know Terri at The Brooklyn Inn. In a neighborhood that is increasingly precious, the Brooklyn Inn is a timeless enigma. Its dark rich wood was reclaimed from a bar in Germany before the rest of Brooklyn started reclaiming wood; old panel mirrors stretch to the ceiling and span an entire wall. In the back room, a juke box is stocked with good music (though David Bowie’s “Heroes” plays more often than not), and you can usually work your way into a game of pool. Also, I have never seen a real-life lineup of regulars that more closely resembles the cast of Cheers (laconic, mildly misanthropic but ultimately winning neighbors).
Still, none of it would be nearly as compelling if the person behind the bar weren’t a great host. The reason the Brooklyn Inn became my living room the minute I moved to the neighborhood seven years ago was Terri Girvin. Her ability to recall details about your life as an ongoing narrative while mixing your whiskey sour and subtlety indicating to the guy down the way that she’ll get to his drink next, made the copious hours I spent there (a significant majority of them when not at my terrifying office job) my favorite.
Terri grew up in California with three brothers and a mom who doubled as walking performance art. She dressed like a clown, encouraged (if not forced) singing and make believe at all times, and gave Terri imaginary elf friends for whom she sewed trousers from leaves. For her 18th birthday, Terri’s mom gave her a joint rolling machine to encourage independence–no man would roll a joint for her daughter. But a life without order made Terri want it. At age six, Terri became the parent, demanding that rules be followed.
In Last Call, Terri interweaves two narratives: the high-level juggling act required of bartenders on a busy New York City night, and her struggle to come to terms with a mom who becomes so unstable that she teeters on the verge of homelessness, jail, and moving into Terri’s New York City apartment. By the end of the night, Terri draws lines on both. Last calls are made to her over-sharing, demanding patrons and to her mom; she loves the creative life she gave Terri, but she can no longer have her in it.
It’s heavy material, but not all of it by any means. Interactions with patrons are comedic gold. A regular asks if she’s been dating. On and off, says Terri, but she realizes that to be successful she has to do better than play hard to get. “I decided I should play hard to find,” says Terri, followed by hard to understand and hard to stomach–at which point she’ll have become a guy.
It is a one woman show, but Terri’s performance is buttressed by a major second character: sound. Pre-recorded lines from customers are woven into Terri’s script. The effect turns what would otherwise be one person on stage–hilarious and engaging though Terri may be–into a three-dimensional night out. Last Call‘s sound designer Phil Palazzolo (who has produced the New Pornographers, Andrew Bird, and Neko Case), is one of Terri’s real life regulars who also figured out how to recreate the uncanny splash of beer hitting the bottom of a pint glass, a knife slicing through a lime and landing on a cutting board, and a big bucket of ice being dumped into a sink (in sum there are 850 action sounds inserted manually in real time).
All of it is expertly choreographed and makes the imaginary objects that the sounds represent materialize on stage. I haven’t experienced such effective make believe since making my Lego men do long jumps off a banister during the 94 Winter Olympics. For an adult with a normal life, it’s an exciting result.
“I already had a lot of feelings for Terri Girvin,” one of Terri’s regulars said in the elevator after a preview performance on Sunday. “Now I have even more.”
You may not already have a lot of feelings for Terri, but if you go to Last Call, you’ll feel like the end came a little too quickly–not so dissimilar to the experience of nursing a drink, at the end of the night, at your favorite local bar.
Tickets for Last Call are on sale here; performances run through November 1.