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Alone Together: The Art Of The Solo Show

November 23, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

As Jackie Mason puts it: Don't knock the one-man show. It only took one guy to paint the Sistine Chapel. And that was before rollers.

They had to put out extra chairs for last Sunday's matinee of Mason's "The World According to Me" at the Canon Theatre. An even bigger hit is Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" at the Doolittle. A solo show may look skimpy, but it can provide as full a theater experience as "Aida" with elephants, if the soloist knows his business.

If not, it's the actor's nightmare. Rarely, however, does a one-performer show turn out to be a complete dud. At the very least, the viewer responds to the bravery of it. One actor holding a roomful of people at bay for two hours! It takes guts. But it can pay dividends. Consider Hal Holbrook. He's been performing his "Mark Twain Tonight" show for 30 years. But because he's done so much in between, he's never been typed as Mark Twain. The show has given him the independence every actor craves, plus a role that a lifetime wouldn't be too long to explore.

There are two kinds of solo shows. In the first, the actor portrays someone else--usually someone famous. Sometimes he does a cartoon, as when Charles Pierce spoofs Tallulah and Bette Davis. (We just had Pierce's "Not a Well Woman" at the Henry Fonda Theatre.) Sometimes she does a watercolor, as when Julie Harris celebrates Emily Dickinson or Charlotte Bronte. (Harris' "Bronte: A Solo Portrait" can be seen tonight at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.)

The performer's other choice is to come out as himself, as Mason does in "The World According to Me," or as Burke Byrnes does in "America's Finest" every Sunday night at the Wallenboyd. Interestingly, neither approach lets the actor off the hook. Harris still has to face the audience head on. Mason still has to create a character.

It's also possible to combine approaches. James Whitmore used to begin his "Will Rogers U.S.A." show as James Whitmore, with Will Rogers sneaking in behind his back. (The fun was to catch the exact moment when he'd made the switch.) Conversely, Tomlin starts "The Search for Signs" as Trudy the bag lady, but momentarily switches to Tomlin so we'll know we came to the right theater.

Whatever her guise, a good solo performer has something to share with the audience. (Harris' Dickinson actually offers us a piece of cake.) Sometimes it's a shared enthusiasm, as with Ian McKellen's "Acting Shakespeare" and Alec McCowen's "The Gospel According to St. Mark."

Sometimes it's the performer's life story. Burke Byrnes' "America's Finest" even includes home movies from his childhood. Byrnes' show comes too close, for my taste, to a psychiatric deposition (and what did you say to your dad then?). But there's no question that Byrnes is putting himself on the line up there, and the listener leaves the theater richer, by one story, in his knowledge of how American sons can get blind-sided by fathers too anxious to teach them how to "take it."

A friend has never forgotten Lena Horne's "A Lady and Her Music"--not for the music, but for the lady, particularly her anger. I found Horne's rage a bit studied, but, again, it was coming from someplace real. Compare "Nicol Williamson: An Evening With a Man and His Band" last summer at the Hollywood Playhouse, where the listener didn't have a clue as to why this lanky Englishman in jeans got a kick out of pretending to be the Big Bopper and reciting "Gunga Din."

Mason doesn't give us the story of his life in "The World According to Me," but it's there in every shrug. For years I've thought of Mason as a strident, self-punishing comic, but I must have confused him with somebody else. True, he's a pushy comic. But it's a gentle kind of pushy. He doesn't think he's got all the answers about life. Still, he's got more answers than you do, so pay attention!

Mason is an old-fashioned Jewish comic, on purpose. The shrug, the accent, the benign contempt--we know this guy. He might be running a clothing store on Fairfax. You come in for a suit, he'll fit you for the suit you ought to have. You don't like it, that's your privilege. But it's his field, suits.

All this takes a certain courage in a time when dialect humor strikes some people as dated and other people (particularly Jews) as demeaning--a charge that Mason deals with in the show.

He also defies convention in declining to do jokes about sex, which he considers a dull topic. As he notes, people probably have soup more often than they have sex--and how many soup jokes are there?

And he knows how to insult an audience. Hey, mister, wake up. No, not you. You can go back to sleep. Rather than being abrasive, the effect is strangely reassuring. In an age of TV comics, here's one who realizes that there are actual people out there. He takes you in, and he goes to work.

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