“Ultimately it asks: What is a family?”
That’s how local playwright Larry Donahue frames his new comedy, Dreamland Motel, which debuts this week at the BeBe Theater.
“I mean, is it your blood relatives? Or can you put a band of misfits together and create a family?”
It’s a good question. As most musicians would agree, being in a band has got all the laughter, intrigue, headaches and tears as your typical family — just with a lot more drugs and a lot fewer dinners. And if great comedy is based on dysfunctional families, then, man, what could be more dysfunctional than a ‘70s rock band?
For Donahue, who grew up in Asheville, the idea for the play spawned from his close friendship with one of the biggest acts to ever come out of our little city: the rock band Flat Rock. And while that name might not be heard as much today, back in the ‘70s, the band shared the stage with some of the classic-rock greats of the era, including Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Bob Seger, Black Oak Arkansas and Ted Nugent.
Over the years and a couple of iterations, members of Flat Rock included well-known names like Bruce McTaggart, Woody Hoyle, Danny Keylon, Jim Burns, Tim Hayden, George Hatcher, Dennis and Frankie Robbins, and the late Robin Farquhar (who used to run the Flat Rock Playhouse, from which the band took its name).
“They played an incredible version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that would just send cold chills up your spine,” says Donahue. “The guys were just awesome.”
That’s not to say that Dreamland Motel in any way mirrors real life. While some of the settings and characters might be based around Flat Rock and the freewheelin’, free-dealin’ ‘70s, Donahue’s active imagination has taken it way, way beyond actual reality.
The play’s plot goes something like this:
So there’s this band of aging rockers who’ve been living in a flea-bag motel for the past 40 years. Like a lot of “one of these days Ma, I swear we’re gonna make it” musicians, they’re still dreaming of becoming rockstars, even though they’re now well into their 60s. They live off their monthly social security checks, plus the few odd gigs they get a month. They’re barely hanging on by a thread. But they got big dreams, man.
Then one day, the original guitar player for the band stops by for a visit in his $100,000 RV. He’s the guy that left the group back in ‘71 to go to college, right when the band was on the cusp of signing a record deal with Epic and hitting the bigtime. But without him, their lead guitarist and best songwriter, the band was left high and dry, and Epic decided to pass. So for the rest of the band, he’s the reason why they’re stuck in that crappy motel and not living it up in a penthouse suite in Seattle with a roomful of groupies and a mudshark.
“They’re ready to kill him,” Donahue says. “He knocked them out of their shot at the bigtime. But he doesn’t remember all that. He’s caught completely off guard. He’s thinking, ‘We were just a bunch of kids! It was just a fun thing!’ So throughout the play he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he’s had this really negative effect on their lives.”
Oh, and did we mention that there’s a stripper? Let the insanity begin.
Funny enough, just like in the play, Donahue and a few of the Flat Rock members actually did live in a shoddy motel for awhile. It was on Merrimon Avenue, at a place called the Bennet’s Motel.
“Somehow we wrangled our way into the thing,” says Donahue. “We all lived in one room. It was a big room with three single beds, almost like cots. And we did the laundry and made up the beds, cleaned out the gutters, painted. So we got to live there for free.”
He laughs. “And that was back in the good ol’ days when … uhh … let’s just say we were having a good time. We got into all the excesses that people did back then. We stayed there for quite awhile. Probably six months. That’s what gave me the idea for the Dreamland Motel setting.”
At this Thursday’s premier, all the surviving members of Flat Rock will be in the audience. And to help get you in the ‘70s rock mood for the performances, Donahue will play tracks from Flat Rock and other local bands of the time. He’s also made sure to scent the playbills with patchouli.
Welcome to the family, my friends.
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
what: Dreamland Motel
where: BeBe Theatre
when: Sept. 15-18 and 22-25 (8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $13 advance/ $15 doors. Pay-what-you-can night is Wednesday, Sept. 14. http://www.acdt.org)