Solo comedy shows are all too often no laughing matter, especially when the subject is the soloist. Flat jokes and fatal misconceptions about audience empathy offer the ultimate Don’t Try This at Home Lesson to any would-be Spalding Gray. The obvious Directive One for all autobiographical performers is that their C.V.s be of some general interest. Most of us take for granted that our lives hold an innate fascination for both historians and poets. The reality, however, is often far otherwise — being left-handed or growing up with aloof parents doesn’t automatically place the storyteller in the same attic with Anne Frank. (Then again, Miss Frank never had a solo show.)
The trick is to stand out and seem unusual without looking like a freak. Ironically, everything about performer John Smith marks him as an Everyman. His show, John Smith: I’m Alive!, italicizes the confessional genre’s promise and pitfalls. The hourlong performance, running on the Met Theatre’s set for American Midget, is the story of a young Briton growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and who, we gather, couldn’t get laid in a Panamanian whorehouse with a fistful of 20s. With his shaved head, wire-rimmed glasses and dark clothes, Smith, who’s closing in on 50, looks the part of a vegan restaurant waiter — ascetic but sarcastic, a man who feels undertipped by God. We sense here an entertainer’s resentment over being handicapped by a kind of social ordinariness since birth, typified by a name synonymous with anonymity. Even though today, but for a heart attack, John Smith would be sharing the name of the British prime minister. (Labour leader John Smith, slated to be the British P.M., was felled by a double heart attack in 1994, allowing Tony Blair to fill that post.)
Smith cheerily impersonates an array of characters who have collided with him over the years to shape a steadfastly neurotic existence. His levelheaded dad is a WWII vet and gardening enthusiast and is completely unsympathetic to his son’s dreams of college — and to his gathering problems. Mum is a Jewish Holocaust survivor who takes her young son out of bed at night to watch TV horror movies with her. While she tries to persuade John of the romanticism she finds in the Mummy, Dracula and werewolves, the boy is merely frightened out of his wits. Little by little, John becomes threatened by London school bullies and imagined monsters, and eventually creates private nighttime rituals to ward off the unknown and impose a level of control over his life. His OCD spreads to include walking only on certain sidewalk squares and using up reams of toilet paper.
School is followed by a series of disastrous jobs, typified by a phone company gig that ends when he mismanages a fire drill of his building’s handicapped workers. John then moves in with a former mercenary named Steve — a hard-drinking, self-assured Scot who seems to keep the meek Smith around more as mascot than a roommate, even after John consumes all his magic mushrooms and redecorates their flat. A hilariously harrowing stay at a countryside compound of sex-cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh reveals to our narrator that he is thoroughly incapable of most useful activity. (Just ask the woman who asked Smith to weed her garden while she ran an errand, only to return to find it completely deracinated.)
“You see,” he tells one of the guru’s captains, “I’m not really cut out for hard work.” That line might be the cri de coeur of every postwar English generation, but it only earns Smith enrollment in the cult’s mental health program, where he is unimaginatively renamed Obsessive Compulsive Neurotic. Here the 26-year-old virgin is told to get sexy with an immensely obese woman with the rather more helpful moniker Can’t Get Enough Cock.
Throughout the show, Smith confronts a more serious threat than his own incompetence. Whenever he faces the serious obstacle of success, however small, he chokes when overcome by the urge to compulsively “adjust” the objects around him. He is not entirely defenseless, however, and resorts to an assortment of New Age fads to find himself. Eventually he betters himself by reconnecting with a long-suppressed urge to act — and by faking his résumés. Yes! we sigh, you’ve finally found the key to your cell door.
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The problem with Smith’s show, however, is that it blurs in and out of focus. Some events (the shroom-inspired paint job of his apartment) receive the loving detail they deserve, while others are tossed out and forgotten. Ultimately the evening comes across as only a half-formulated outline — as though we’re hearing the chapter headings of his autobiography, and not the life itself. We continually find Smith in the margins of some profession or lifestyle, but the situations he sketches are narcissistically unconnected to any context of any other part of the world he inhabits. He mentions that his mother was part of the 20th century’s half dozen or so defining events but quickly elbows it out of frame with descriptions of how he arranged his slippers at night. He also moves to Prague to make Chained Heat II,the 1993 Brigitte Nielsen prison romp, but gives us none of the sly, jaundiced observations such an experience must have provoked and for which a Sandra Tsing Loh would have killed.
Finally, Smith ends up in Los Angeles to work on movies, only to find himself sharing an apartment with the crackhead brother of a cameraman he met in Prague. The Brit Meets L.A. trope is a classic in literature but receives none of the drop-jaw descriptions offered by similar visitors created by Aldous Huxley or Evelyn Waugh. There’s also a clear implication that his OCD runs deeper than a neurosis because he frequently returns to moments where an inner voice speaks to him — something we need to know is real or an artistic construct.
In the end, we sense we’re listening to a tryout for a more detailed and reflective piece. We know such material is there for the mining, because Smith delivers a great moment on an L.A. bus, in which a scrap of paper containing his only link to the New World (the crackhead’s address) is taken by a taciturn Indian and placed in his pocket without a word, and for the first time we really feel Smith’s helplessness at being adrift in life. Director Paul Koslo, who apparently worked with Smith on Chained Heat II, shows an understanding of Smith’s life that, hopefully, they can develop and share with the rest of us. Smith feels confident enough to prowl the stage with his body, but will he dare dig deeper into the events that have made him what he is — and what he isn’t?
JOHN SMITH: I’m Alive! | Written & performed by JOHN SMITH | At the MET THEATRE, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hlywd. | Runs through July 28 | (323) 957-1152