Allen Johnson had a hit before TBA even got off the ground. They were warning of his show selling out before I even had my press pass, so when I arrived Sunday night for the show at Corberry Press I wasn’t surprised to be told they were sold-out with people hovering around for floor space. Luckily I got in and had a seat next to a nice young man (hi Justin!) who came to TBA from L.A. and had convinced a friend to come from NYC just for TBA. That’s dedication! First, the Corberry Press was the perfect place for this show. It has a concrete floor, raw ceiling, and maybe 80 seats (who can tell?) in a semi-circle. It felt a little AA, a little story-time-at-the-library, and every 14 min. the streetcar rumbled by outside making it all feel nitty gritty and rough around the edges. Allen’s show was a superb and terrifying monologue on growing up in an average American home with parents who commit atrocious acts of sexual violence and tenderly adore him, all within the same memories. These violent parts were difficult to sit through because Allen’s voice was taut with emotion at all times– it was actually difficult to hear him tell the story because his voice was nearly cracking under the emotional weight. Excellent acting. He explored how these early experiences lead to a lifelong search for male contact, both physical and emotional.
The piece struck me as an American experience, a little like if Springsteen had grown up rougher and drove delivery trucks in the Bronx.
There were moments that felt too forced, but for the most part Allen projected genuine, deep-rooted sorrow. One over-wrought moment was a conversation with a dead pigeon described as cold and hard “like pastry.” This I couldn’t leap to, but other moments rang true. There were several times when I was unable to tell if the narrator was being sarcastic or truthful, which hurt the work because it relies so heavily on trust in the narrator. It felt very much like the audience was playing a kind of therapist, and Allen made a point of making eye contact and speaking to individuals. He approached the work as an amalgam of memories jumbled out of chronological order. In one especially touching memory a girl in preschool offers her best booger in friendship, which Allen segues into an adult memory by sitting up and wiping the imaginary booger on the floor. Such carry-overs from one memory to the next maintained good momentum for the piece and synthesized experiences set twenty years apart. I’m glad I got to see this one.