Surgeon General's warning to people with asthma: Please do not attend Tim Minchin's set at New World Stages. In the event you are accidentally exposed to the performer or any of his songs, especially the blow-up doll ballad "Inflatable You,"

Surgeon General’s warning to people with asthma: Please do not attend Tim Minchin’s set at New World Stages. In the event you are accidentally exposed to the performer or any of his songs, especially the blow-up doll ballad “Inflatable You,” please breathe steadily into a paper bag and think about kittens dying until you no longer see black spots in front of your eyes. Remember: Asphyxiation is no laughing matter.

Deep in the basement of the Off Broadway theaterplex, a short, barefoot man with lots of eyeliner and hair by General Electric is playing a complicated arpeggio on the piano with an enthusiasm that would give Ben Folds a run for his money. Every now and then, he leans over and says the word “pigs” into his microphone, and the audience bursts out laughing again. This is Minchin, a songwriting comedian from Australia who looks profoundly, hilariously uncomfortable on the stage in front of a small but pleased audience, until he gets back to his piano or launches a memorably low-rent setpiece.

Minchin’s ostensible shtick is that he wants to be a tortured rock star but isn’t really badass material. He’s not troubled enough, he’s happily married, and he has no confidence at all. Of course, each of these problems makes a wonderful novelty song with a do-it-yourself twist, like Minchin playing air drums, air bass, air guitar and air backup vocals, a feat better witnessed than explained.

It’s a good conceit, clearly born out of playing cheap venues and having a sense of humor about it, but it doesn’t cover the totality of what Minchin can actually do as a performer. For one thing, these are very catchy songs. It’s not just that the lyrics are clever (“You spread through me like malignant melanoma/And now you’re in my heart”) — Minchin knows enough about music to compose numbers that aren’t really parodies but immediately strike a metaphorical as well as a literal chord. You know you’ve heard that rock anthem that has everybody swaying and waving their cigarette lighters in the air, but you don’t remember the lyrics as “Take your canvas bags to the supermarket.”

Minchin’s show is ridiculous and self deprecating (“the fact that I don’t wear shoes is just an affectation,” he assures us), but he never bypasses the brain to get to the funny bone. Between the wonderfully ill-chosen metaphors extended, ad absurdum, into songs, Minchin riffs on everything from superstition to marriage.

Too often, light verse and featherweight comedy get short cultural shrift; we know what to do with tragedy but we don’t have any outlines from Aristotle on action that is not serious, with incidents that don’t arouse pity and fear but banish them. Minchin’s show has no narrative thrust, but it offers a kind of catharsis you can’t really get from anything but intricately written, attention-grabbing comedy.

The only problem with the show is that it’s in tourist-populated Midtown. At a downtown theater, Minchin would be right on top of the people most likely to appreciate a talented, relatively unknown musical comedian. Here, it’s going to be more of a strain to find an audience. It’s a surprise that such a pleasant high hasn’t produced more junkies, but hopefully the addiction will spread.

Tim Minchin

New World Stages, New York City; 199 seats; $50 top

Production

A Phil McIntyre Entertainment presentation of a cabaret show in one act written and performed by Tim Minchin.

Creative

Lighting, Paul Jones; sound, Zane Birdwell; production stage manager, Jason Adams. Opened March 5, 2008. Reviewed March 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

With: Tim Minchin.
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