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Beaver Cleaver in Hell 

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
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Standup comic Ric Borelli bears a passing resemblance to his hero, the late John Belushi. The similarity has never been lost on others, especially Borelli‘s former fellow inmates in Illinois’ Vandalia Correctional Center. How he came to play to this captive audience forms the storytelling core of Borelli‘s solo show, The Best Dope in Town, currently on view at the Tamarind Theater. He grew up in the posh Chicago suburb of Wilmette, the son of two Italian-Argentine doctors whose family and wondrous kitchen were once featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Slides of the Borelli home reveal a large, gabled house decked with Bicentennial bunting and teenage Ric sitting on the front porch -- the kind of Maple Street image that was so famously burned into the American retina during the heydays of Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

This leafy idyll quickly falls apart in Borelli’s narrative, which walks the line between confession and exhibitionism. First there is the parents‘ toxic divorce, then Borelli’s coke bust during his days as a low-level drug dealer. That arrest, which occurred at the height of the Reagan anti-drug crusades, earned Borelli, after a two-year game of legal dodge ball, a mandatory two-and-a-half-year stretch in a minimum-security correctional facility.

To his credit, Borelli eschews autobiographical swagger in his re-creation of that harrowing world of prison that is never forgotten by anyone who‘s been there: the paranoid terror that alternates with crushing tedium, the constant hungers and those all-important exercise-yard protocols. Neither does he exaggerate the dangers he faced, or preach, one way or the other, about the penal system. Instead, he presents an array of characters he met along the way to prison and freedom. Among the most memorable are his cynical Chicago lawyer, a Latino gang veterano and the old cracker who supervised his work as a prison butcher. The highlight, though, is his impersonation of fabled Second City guru Del Close, whose improv class Borelli attended prior to being sent downstate.

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The show, despite an edgy video re-enactment of Borelli’s arrest and an eclectic soundtrack ranging from the Beatles to Cypress Hill, stumbles when it stretches into trying to be a multimedia show. You can almost tell where Borelli and director Jay Leggett thought ”film“ -- especially in those moments of awkward interaction between performer and the photo slides that are projected without the benefit of a dissolve unit. (There are smoother ways to show Borelli‘s childhood home than having him turn around to the screen and say, ”This is where I lived.“)

But the show’s creaky mechanics never spoil the evening and can be finessed with time and a bigger budget. Borelli told the Weekly that when he got out of prison it took him about a year of quiet adjustment before he was able to even speak up during Second City sessions, let alone begin his interrupted tour with the group. Clearly, the experience will never leave him, and it is to his credit that he has transformed a nightmare into a performance of candor and self-realization.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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