Entering His Anecdotage

New York Theatre Workshop's dressed-up solo show does no particular harm

I have a friend, a former actor turned computer whiz, whose years of struggle in the theater have left him determined never to say anything unkind about any aspect of any performance he attends. He often goes to new shows, but the most you can ever get out of him afterward is, "I didn't mind it." Everyone's a critic, the old saying tells us, but he's magically learned how to resist that temptation. He came into my mind, more than once, while I was watching John Fugelsang, monologuist and former political stand-up comic, perform his new solo piece, All the Wrong Reasons. Though not exactly theater, the piece is also not exactly anything else. It's been dressed up, under Pam MacKinnon's direction, with a sort of set, including a couch and a railing, plus a few tidbits of self-conscious staging, and a fairly large panoply of light and sound cues.

Inside this bare but elaborate context, Fugelsang, a pleasant-looking and amiable performer with reasonably skillful delivery, moves back and forth, telling a loosely linked series of anecdotes, some with a political spin on them and some without. He talks about his parents, his career, and how he and his girlfriend came to be married. High points include his on-the-air face-off with white supremacist David Duke, to whom he proposed a public sexual encounter, and his near-disastrous attempt to smuggle medical marijuana for a friend through a Florida airport. The event runs about 90 minutes, contains some mild laughs and some mild stimuli for the cerebral cells, and does no particular harm if you have the 90 minutes to spare. It reminded me of Brecht's Mr. Peachum, who, as you no doubt recall, always used the word "harmless" to cue the band when the cops dropped in for a visit, at which point he would favor them with a song on the futility of all human effort. For this world, Brecht's song laments, human beings are never good enough, bad enough, simple enough, or clever enough. This ingeniously worded blanket condemnation, running through my head as I watched Fugelsang work, made a good context for not being overly judgmental.

To my surprise, I found this unprofessional posture rather liberating. There are nights when, as I sit in overheated auditoriums, suppressing coughs and fighting off sleep as I struggle to concentrate, I begin to think we make too much fuss about theater, or, indeed, about all the arts. (We certainly charge too much for it.) Brecht is right; our whole approach needs simplifying. To be precise, old B.B. doesn't exactly say we're not "simple" enough for this life: The word he uses is anspruchlos—unpretentious, unassuming, undemanding. In art as in the rest of living, our civilization tends to ask too much, and to put too many obstacles in the way of the little we do get. Some of Fugelsang's stories, about the elaborate mishaps that his Catholic-bred guilt leads him into, make handy illustrations of the point, as does the notion, rather proudly laid out in detail in the show's program, that this loose-limbed assemblage of one man's personal recollections required four years' worth of "developmental" workshops and readings, at a dozen different venues.

Mild at heart: John Fugelsang in All the Wrong Reasons
Joan Marcus
Mild at heart: John Fugelsang in All the Wrong Reasons

My interest did perk up when Fugelsang started explaining where he gets his exceptionally layered heritage of Catholic guilt, which is among the more colorful backstories in recent solo performance. His parents, before their marriage, were a nun in a nursing order in Malawi and a Franciscan monk teaching history in Brooklyn. But then somehow I lost the thread. Nuns in Malawi brought to mind the legend of the classical music critic who, thanks to an overhelpful typesetter, found his column referring to Schubert's song "Die Junge Nonne" as "The Jungle Nun." I was trying to remember who had first told me this ancient wheeze when suddenly I heard Fugelsang talking about how stem-cell research had produced treatments, still not legal in this country, which had reversed his father's arterial blockage, and I knew we were approaching the ending, uplifting but with a touch of rue, currently deemed suitable for solo performances like All the Wrong Reasons. So I gathered up my things, applauded politely, and, when somebody on the way out asked me what I thought, I said, "I didn't mind it." Yes, everyone's a critic, but you need something to criticize first.

 
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