Laurel Casey revels as a provocateur.
Even though Casey, 49, has been performing for 25 years, nobody can come up with a good description of her act. Rope-thin in a floor-length black dress and matching gloves, she “wraps a song around the listener like a silk sheet,” as one reviewer said. Yet she’s just as likely to skewer anybody who happens to be sitting in the same zip code.
Casey has been singing in Boston for just two months. She would love to sing more often in Providence, where she lives, but she can’t get a gig to save an orphanage. She has a funny knack for getting let go, forgotten, or just plain fired.”People don’t know where to put [her act],” says Xaque Gruber, a TV writer and producer in Los Angeles. “But, they didn’t know where to put Andy Kaufman, either. … I see her as the embodiment of truth. Anything she’s gonna say is from the gut.” Recently, a s a grad student at Boston University, Gruber filmed a documentary on Casey, following her around for nearly a year. The result, “Laurel Casey: The Hurting Truth,” will play Sunday at the Provincetown Film Festival. Casey will perform after the show, and you can expect many of her old fans to show up. They don’t know how to describe her show, either, but they know they like it.
Chris Amirault, a Brown University professor and the president of the Laurel Casey Fan Club, says Casey is “the only person I’ve wanted to see perform in years and years.”
Sometimes, Casey says, a big-shot customer will throw her a five spot.
“What, you think this will buy me dinner?” she’ll say. “Well, maybe it will,” she’ll add, before she stuffs it in her mouth and chews.
Whatever the reason, Casey has a legitimate talent for not getting invited back. Shortly after Sept. 11, Casey was playing a club in Providence when she sang the “Afghanistan National Anthem.” She draped a tablecloth over her head as a makeshift burka, and emitted a series of high-pitched wails and moans as she jerked around on stage.
Most of the audience howled at the joke. But one man requested she sing the American national anthem, for patriotic balance.
Casey obliged, broke into a chorus of “Money, Money” from “Cabaret,” and was promptly fired.
She jokes that the First Amendment is costing her a career. In Providence, she used to have a powerful buddy in the mayor’s office who would help her get gigs by writing to club owners.
Laurel Casey was born in Middlebury, Vt., to a phone repairman who sang to her in the living room, old swing tunes by Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.
After getting degrees in acting in Vermont and at Florida State University, Casey moved to New York. She worked off-Broadway and did regional theater in a number of cities, but the money never flowed the way she needed it to. She took side jobs, working as a reporter for a radio station, a columnist for the New York Press, a nude model, a bathroom attendant, and, of course, a waitress. She did her cabaret shows to make money on the side, but there was rarely enough money.
She got married because she couldn’t pay her rent, she says, and spent 10 years with a man she didn’t like. It was a relationship that she says yielded nothing beautiful but a daughter, Channing.
Casey wanted to be famous, and she acknowledges being disillusioned, which she made clear in a show titled “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” A book she wrote, “Brokeland,” was never published. Her stint with a cabaret workshop in New York flopped when she spoofed the whole bunch. And so, with all her dreams of being famous, she has had to settle for being infamous.
On her offensive language: “I promise I’m never gonna say the word [expletive] again in Boston. I’ll continue to say the words [expletive] and [expletive], though.”
In front of a particularly dead audience: “I should’ve gone to medical school. At least then I could’ve paid for my antidepressants.”
Despite, or maybe because of, her wicked tongue, she’s building a Boston audience.
“She’s my alter ego,” says Rosemarie Sansone, a former Boston city councilwoman, who has seen Casey seven Friday nights in a row.
“I have to stay with it, because I can’t say, `I used to be in the theater, I used to be a singer,'” Casey says.
“I could never be an ex-performer. I’d feel like a true failure. That, to me, would be heartbreaking.”
She’s lingering over a now-empty glass of red wine as the last patrons file out.
Casey, who works as a yoga teacher to pay the rent, says she wants to shake things up a bit, to shock the city out of its self-satisfied stateliness. To get some blue blood boiling.
“They need me here,” says Casey. “They don’t need me in California or in Europe. They’d get me there. They need me here. They don’t know it, but they need it.”
This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2002.