As a street performer, Mark Lundholm could hold his own among the collar-grabbing locos who stand outside the bus terminals of major cities gibbering at commuters. Eyes popping out of his head, muscles jumping out of his skin, this twitchy raconteur also would score big at 12-step meetings on the basis of his material — an autobiographical rant about growing up on Ritalin, getting hooked on alcohol and harder stuff, shaking off his nasty habits and coming out of the desert to preach to the barbarians. The question is, what is this preacher man doing in the theater?
With 130 live entertainment venues in its international empire, not to mention its specialized sports arenas, Clear Channel could keep this off-the-wall show on permanent rotation at, say, stock-car races and tractor pulls, where gamblers, alcoholics, smokers, nail-biters and other addictive types are in no short supply. But recent bookings at legit stages like the Minneapolis Women’s Club Theater and the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami suggest the producers find something inherently theatrical in it.
To be sure, Bob Balaban’s slick production makes no bones about its legit intentions. Paul Miller’s snazzy lighting, the sophisticated sound design by Randy Hansen and Duncan Edwards and, above all, Walt Spangler’s smashing environmental-art setting (a back wall regimentally hung with some 3,000 empty beer bottles) make a bona fide professional package. And while the Zipper may be the funkiest theater in town — with its kick-back bar, lovingly preserved industrial ephemera and auditorium space filled with upholstered car seats — the former garment-district factory is still recognizable as a theater.
In selling his confessional memoir as “a comedy of substance,” Lundholm punches up some of the more bizarre anecdotes of his life to give them narrative form. A family trip to Disneyland becomes a black mini-comedy in which alcoholic Dad corners Goofy on Main Street and demands to be taken to the nearest bar. (“Dysfunctional?!” Lundholm asks, reading the audience’s collective mind. “Dysfunctional was the toaster in the kitchen that never worked properly. My family was evil!”)
In the same way, a recollection of the day he took his first drink, at the age of 7, becomes a two-character morality tale about father-son bonding over a dirty joke and a swig of beer. (“So you thought it was funny, huh boy?” “Yes Dad, it was very funny.”)
A big, intense guy with a deep, booming voice, Lundholm plays his abusive father with scary conviction. But other characters who make their way into the story, from his therapist to the various “babes with baggage” he dated, remain disembodied voices. For the most part, the performer plays himself — a guy with a burning need to talk about himself. The darkness of his experiences (no clowning-around-at-the-coffee-shop stuff for Lundholm, who has performed at San Quentin) and the ferocity of his delivery give a real edge to his routine. “This show is like real life,” he snarls. “It’s funny, then it’s not … then it’s over.”
But for all the bleakness of his comic vision, he’s not in the same league of inspired wild men like Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo, who manage to spin the raw materials of their lives into monologues for characters who live and breathe and make real theater on stage.