FOR SOME TIME NOW, THE SOLO-PERFORMANCE genre has been dominated by the Put-Upon American -- that smarmy species of storyteller who, according to his or her tale, would be living a rewarding life of contemplation and quiet hobbies if it weren't for those crazed spouses, parents and friends who besiege him or her with their neurotic demands. But if the new shows by Kirk Pynchon and John Crane, respectively at the Attic and Groundling theaters, are any indication, both the confessional and showcase stages are being commandeered by performers who themselves are unabashed freaks.
Pynchon made a considerable splash in 1998 with a two-man show called Mancard, which offered a kind of playful survey course of the dos and don'ts of American masculinity. The title of his new, solo outing -- Kirk du Soleil -- doesn't particularly hint at anything other than a pun on the name of the ubiquitous Quebec-cum-Vegas circus. The real revelations all come from the horse's mouth, and they are not for the sensitive of ear. "I woulda made a good Nazi," Pynchon laments at the top of the evening, the way some men might wistfully say, "I'da made a good centerfielder." Coulda, shoulda, woulda. It soon turns out that this show's incorrect politics are strictly of the personal kind, however, and Pynchon's icebreaker comment is simply meant to suggest how much of a control freak he is.
His will to hold the steering wheel in every situation is truly breathtaking: He is, among other things, given to writing lots of lists (grocery lists, things-to-do inventories); he's also an obsessive scheduler and fetishizes Day Planners ("Franklins, of course -- the others are for wussies") -- deriving sensual pleasure in crossing off the items of said lists and schedules. But he's more than sugar and starch; he becomes nearly apoplectic when a new apartment tenant, ignorant of the vast personal territorial waters claimed by Pynchon, recklessly does a load of wash on the day Pynchon sets aside for himself in the building's laundry room.
A fermented bile courses through the veins of Pynchon's storytelling, fueling an inexhaustible rage against an uncomprehending world. In some ways, Kirk du Soleil reminds one of Christopher Titus' 1997 solo show, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding. Both men are roughly the same sinewy build, sport the same close-cropped fair hair -- and present compact packages of stage rage.
Yet there the similarities end, for unlike Titus' show, whose every moment mocked our notions of how a polite, morally manicured life should be run, Kirk du Soleil never puts the audience on the spot; if Titus was a '90s Holden Caulfield, Pynchon is a contemporary Dobie Gillis, albeit a seething Dobie Gillis. None of our smugly liberal assumptions about society are ever questioned in Kirk du Soleil -- we just laugh in comfort at the angry guy up there talking about his lists and rules. There are no real epiphanies, arcs or personality changes in Pynchon's 50 profanity-packed minutes, no real story at all, in fact -- just a train of mundane events that Pynchon psychotically blows out of proportion and that culminate in an account of a foolish dare he once made to eat a battleship-size ice cream dessert called Bob's Nightmare.
Nevertheless, even in Kirk du Soleil's rather limiting narrative, we can discern a canny line-drawing of a new form of underground man -- the controlling male. Pynchon's bristling stage freak cannot be likened to a manipulator or a bully; his abject need to assert himself even in the least significant moments of life is both an SOS and a manifesto sent by a person so utterly overwhelmed by the modern world that he detects its threats and torments in those long lists of his, whose items he violently obliterates with a pen.
At the heart of Pynchon's tirade is the desire to play God, to create a new Ten Commandments and to view all people (even lovers and friends) as fallen mortals. Any response to any situation that differs from his consigns an individual to the nether rings of purgatory populated by pussies, wussies, losers and bitches. Pynchon explains his outlook by saying, "It's all about winning," but his competitive, no-punting philosophy is merely male anxiety wrapped in a jockstrap.
When Pynchon covers his crotch with a Day Planner and declares, "Lists are life!," he might be proclaiming a new Leviticus, a code of conduct guaranteed to keep out the chaos of the wilderness that is society. A generation or two ago, Pynchon's character would have had it much easier; then, white men in their late 20s or early 30s had an entire support system to cushion their stumbling routes in life: guaranteed jobs, shared military experiences and slang, cigarettes and Aqua Velva, cars they could fix -- and, naturally, the privileges of color and gender. Now, of course, it is all chaos and wilderness. As he concedes toward the end of his piece, being a robot is the only protection from life's spit wads.
LIKE PYNCHON, THE MAIN CHARACTER OF THE ENSEMBLE comedy Choppy exhibits one basic persona -- obnoxious. For if Pynchon is occasionally irritating, John Crane as Choppy's titular freak is a slipped dentist's drill; likewise, while Kirk du Soleil is narratively simplistic, it reads like The Dream of the Red Chamber compared to Crane's 50-minute counterpart. (His Choppy impersonation has been seen before, in Groundlings sketches.) Even after watching Crane in a "full-length" show, it's hard to gauge whether we ever want to watch another minute of the grating Choppy.
Crane is certainly hard to take your eyes off, a childlike clown with Chris Kattan's limberness and the squeezed voice of Joe Pesci. With his hyperactive mien and chipmunky squint, and a habit of sucking on a 7-Eleven Double Gulp whenever scolded, Choppy is immediately recognizable as the class clown 15 years after junior high, a randy wisenheimer whose reflexive urge to insult everyone with juvenile putdowns guarantees him a celibate, jobless existence.
Choppy's main appeal is his unrelenting attack on "sensitivity" -- he's always ridiculing other people's attempts to "share" and, in one truly inspired scene, mercilessly heckles Brian Palermo in the role of a solo performer discussing his dysfunctional family. The show's bare plot has Choppy getting fired from one job after another (security guard, janitor, Tower Records clerk) that have been lined up by an employment agency run by the exasperated Mr. Chang (Karen Maruyama). He also owes money to a hulking bully named Rico (Kevin Ruf); along the way we're introduced to Rico's voluptuous girlfriend, Heidi (Jennifer Coolidge), who has a soft spot for the diminutive Choppy. But this "plot" is merely a frame into which Crane fits a series of sketches that have the feel of comic-strip panels. Choppy himself is merely a male cartoon, highly reminiscent of one of those R. Crumb "snoids" who lust after big-legged women; even the occasional appearance in the show of two wonderfully elastic dancers (Alfred Carr Jr. and Seymour Willis Green) recalls Crumb's use of African-American ghetto figures who break down the uptightness of white characters.
But beyond the Crumb and Kattan reminders, Choppy also begs comparison with Paul Reubens' Pee-wee Herman persona, which was developed with the Groundlings about two decades ago. Like Pee-wee, Choppy wears a civilian uniform (a white, short-sleeved shirt and chopped-off necktie) and is selfishly concerned with his possessions (Pee-wee had his bicycle; Choppy has a boom box that he guards with obsessive care). The difference is that Pee-wee, whose Melrose Avenue sense of kitsch earned him status as a gay icon, was ultimately asexual, whereas Choppy is all horndog, practically leaping onto Coolidge's explosive body whenever she appears. For her part, Coolidge's performance as the kindhearted, if dimwitted, babe with the German accent single-handedly prevents the show from becoming a mere showcase for one comedian. The other actors (who include Roger Eschbacher) also perform admirably in a number of roles, but these mostly tend to be as straight men who, under Crane's pen and Melanie Graham's direction, are nowhere near as memorable as Crane's rude mechanical.
KIRK DU SOLEIL | Written and performed by KIRK PYNCHON | Factory Theater Company at the ATTIC THEATER | 6562Þ Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through October 8
CHOPPY | Written and created by JOHN CRANE At the GROUNDLING THEATER | 7307 Melrose Ave., Hollywood | Through October 1
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