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The Light Side of the Moon

Theater: Doug Cooney's comic monologue 'Astronaut' lands in Huntington Beach tonight.


Doug Cooney has been to the moon and back with his comic monologue "Astronaut."

"At first I was fascinated by the science and anecdotal history," said Cooney, who first performed the work two years ago to mark the 25th anniversary of the first lunar landing, in 1969; he presents the show's West Coast premiere tonight at the Huntington Beach Art Center.

"I was a junior-high kid again. It amazed me--the seat-of-the-pants, rudimentary technology used to accomplish that deed. . . . You're working at a bigger computer right now than they had on the lunar module."

Cooney's seat-of-the-pants performing style makes for a show that evolves; it currently focuses on the feelings he had at 12 while watching the moon landing.

"I arced through a philosophical period when what interested me about the moon landing was--brace yourself--the ontological aspects, what it had to do with man's spirituality," he said. "What interests me now is my personal relationship with it. . . . I did the science fair; I really got out there; now I've come back to Earth."

A lawyer by day and performance artist by night, Cooney developed "Astronaut" while on a fellowship at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Inspiration came from a variety of sources: The image of an astronaut on a billboard in a Boston subway station. Postcards of the moon from long-lost friends. A photograph of his kindergarten Halloween party, for which he dressed up as an astronaut.

Most important were transcripts of television coverage of the historic day and the realization that--unlike baby-boomers such as Cooney, 39, for whom Space Age technology was a birthright--grown-ups at the time felt quite differently.

"We were living on the brink of tomorrow," Cooney noted. "That tomorrow is today, of course, and it feels pretty much the same. What was the one small step about? Where did that giant leap take us? It's one of the last moments of idealism in our culture."

He recently discovered that his feelings also differ markedly from a succeeding generation of kids: "My personal relationship to the space program is that I believed in it," he said. "Not so long ago, I was working with artists in their 20s and realized that their relationship with the program was based on watching clips in the cafetorium of [the space shuttle Challenger] being blown up. Like, 'Can we go back to class now?' "

Cooney grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla.; he lives in Los Angeles. (Florida and Southern California both happen to have been hubs of the aerospace program.) His solo performances have been featured at Manhattan's Dance Theatre Workshop, the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, Cleveland Performance Art Festival and the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in Jamestown, N.Y.

It's not lost on Cooney that the local premiere of "Astronaut" takes place in Buzz Aldrin country.

"Buzz Aldrin is a fascinating guy, brilliant," Cooney said. "Other men who have gone through this . . . cosmic journey are very eloquent. But nobody is quite so candid, vulnerable, exposed. It's equally fascinating that Neil Armstrong has been so private.

"What fascinates me are the dark dynamics of that road trip. Those two men didn't appear to like each other very much. Buzz has written that when he couldn't be the first man to walk on the moon, he peed on the moon. And he talks about it being a first, in a cowboy sort of way. He was catheterized, of course, but you don't have to look very deep to see there are behavioral implications."

Cooney noted that most photos of men on the moon are of Aldrin--as snapped by Armstrong.

"Both astronauts have cameras to document the visit," Cooney said. "Buzz accidentally forgets his on the moon. He leaves it there. That seems really passive aggressive. . . . These guys were trained to the nth degree. . . . I don't think they were trained to leave things behind."

NASA's goings-on are not Cooney's only consuming passion. He's written more than a dozen performance pieces and plays on a wide range of topics.

He was a finalist at the National Playwrights Conference and at New Dramatists, both in New York. The MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Lila-Wallace Reader's Digest Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts have awarded him commissions.

A children's work, "The Wind That Blew," represented the United States at the International Very Special Arts Festival in Brussels and was staged at Very Special Arts' 20th anniversary at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Tonight's performance of "Astronaut" takes place a moon rock's throw from Hollywood.

"We've handed the space program over to Hollywood," Cooney said. "Once we'd been up there once or twice, the feeling of the American public was, 'Been there, done that, don't do it again; it's a bit more than we can handle.' We were able to go further . . . with 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' and the virtual-reality experience.

"The other night in Santa Monica they had a reunion of all the astronauts--hosted by Tom Hanks. Isn't that funny? Isn't that funny? I was raised to believe astronauts were heroes. I don't want to be bashing Tom Hanks, but Tom Hanks is an actor. He's not a hero. He's not heroic.

"The image perpetuated of astronauts is a mythological icon . . . and that's very difficult for them," Cooney said. "Those guys, they're just guys. Buzz Aldrin isn't alone. I escorted Edgar Mitchell's daughter to a debutante ball; he and his wife went with us. I realized then that the astronauts were just these very troubled middle-aged guys that drove Lincoln Continentals, a far cry from the space cowboys I imagined when I was little."

* Doug Cooney presents "Astronaut," an evening-length comic monologue, tonight at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. 8 p.m. $10; students, seniors and art center members $8. (714) 374-1650.

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