Jay Sefton’s solo performance, The Most Mediocre Story Never Told, now at the Meta Theater until October 26, is the remarkable tale of an unremarkable young guy struggling to tell his life story in a one-man show for reasons that he doesn’t fully understand.
A personable and charming actor, Sefton flinches at the special effects — stage smoke and roving spotlights — that open the show, as though he’s the star of a rock concert. Sefton points out how these theatrics were suggested by some one-man-show expert who makes his rent by shaping the stories of would-be actors into a serviceable performance. The bells and whistles really aren’t necessary, the actor demurs.
Perhaps by telling of his youth in Philadelphia, and of his humiliating performance at age 13 as Christ in a Catholic-school production of the Passion Play, he will discover the reason that he’s on the stage recounting his adventures as a child actor, stooping in a “fairy robe” to wash the feet of Christ’s disciples.
Lifting the robes of his classmates for the foot-washing ceremony, he discovers messages written onto the soles of his peers: “Fuck you.” “Fag.” “Asshole.” And “Hey Jay, what’s up?”
After this, he is tied to a cross while dressed in a diaper, during which the thoughts running through his mind include wishing he had some hair under his armpits and his eagerness to fall into the arms of Mary Magdalene, because she’s played by his voluptuous blond eighth-grade classmate, Lisa Connor. Among a small gallery of characters whom Sefton also plays are his alter ego, Phillie Jay, who points out that because his life is so dull, it would benefit both him and his audience to make stuff up, invent some drama. And, under Debra De Liso’s direction, which nimbly guides the show along its magic carpet ride, this is where Sefton cuts to the heart of his tantalizing concept:
“I looked up story in the thesaurus, just to see if I had one, and most of the words had something to do with not telling the truth: fable, yarn, gossip, rumor, legend. There are other words there, too — anecdote, chronicle — but there is a whole subsection called lie. As actors, we hear, ‘Just tell the story.’ What’s the story? I am just listening for the story. You are a storyteller.”
“Where are these stories? Where do they really exist? And who am I without them?” Sefton asks onstage, aptly suggesting that our very identity and faith come from stories that have deliberately rubbed the edges away from empirical reality.
Stories of Chinese immigrants, fur trappers and adventurers building railroads, manifesting destiny and mining for gold can help build nations, as they did ours in the 19th century. Just as easily, however, the delusions of grandeur that accompany such legends can bring an entire population to its knees, as we’ve seen over the past 30 years in general, and the last eight years in particular.
After a brief interlude of federal entitlement programs that aimed to help pull America out of the Great Depression, the nation’s original creation myth — that all persons should have the liberty to determine their own destiny, free of government intervention — was resurrected by Ronald Reagan. His ideology led to the dismantling of government assistance programs in general and almost every form of government regulation in particular — across a broad swath of industries. The theory attached to the legend was that if the wealthiest segments of the economy are left unfettered to maximize their profits, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else.
Not only was there scant evidence to support this theory, but American economic policy leading up to the crash of ’29 directly contradicted it. As Sefton points out in his show, however, legends and myths have little to do with evidence. They are stories of identity and ideology that trickle down to theology, like the Passion Play, and the legend of the unregulated market providing opportunity for all.
In neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1985 collection of clinical tales, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, there’s one story called “The President’s Speech.” In that story, two groups of patients suffering from brain disorders gather to listen to a speech by Ronald Reagan.
One group has a kind of aphasia that renders them incapable of understanding the meanings of words, and the lines of logic that connect them. As compensation, however, they have an enhanced ability to “read” facial tics, body language and the musicality of language otherwise bereft of its literal meaning. The other group has agnosia, or the inability to absorb those actorly qualities of vocal timbre and cadence, or visual cues. But in its stead, these patients possess a sharper than normal ability to comprehend words and their meaning, and the logic that binds that meaning — even if they hear those words as though from a robot.
Both groups listened to Ronald Reagan with dismay and perplexity. “He is not truthful,” the aphasiacs reported about the president’s performance — since they couldn’t grasp the meaning of what he was actually saying, only how he said it. Meanwhile, the agnosiacs pointed out the numerous fallacies of the commander-in-chief’s logic.
At the same time, worlds of people beyond that clinic were swooning to the deregulation/privatization mantra of Reagan and England’s prime minister, Maggie Thatcher, fooled into embracing economic policies and an ideology that has led directly to the causes of the current global financial collapse, for which our great-grandchildren will be paying. Thirty years ago, the brain-deficient got it right, clearly grasping what most of the rest of the world could not.
Sefton is concerned that the mostly pedestrian truths of his upbringing, including two loving parents, is too dull for the stage. Dancing around this concern is whether stories, however removed from real facts and experiences, are created to arrive at larger truths or to obfuscate them. It would seem that our inability to tell truth from obfuscation, or, more simply, to tell the truth and to hear it, comes from fundamental breakdowns of intelligence and perception. These maladies also define who we are, and they propel the story of our national fall from grace.
THE MOST MEDIOCRE STORY NEVER TOLD | Written and performed by JAY SEFTON | At META THEATRE, 7801 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | (323) 960-7780 | Through Oct. 26.