Darrell Dennis has plenty of interesting stories in “Tales of an Urban Indian” but not enough natural charm to woo an audience that has seen more than its share of look-at-me-I’m-ethnic solo shows in the last few seasons. Dennis brings a new character to an old formula: His protag, Simon Douglas, is a native Canadian, raised on and off the reservation, who finally ends up a ruined alcoholic in Vancouver. It’s not all standard fare, and Dennis lands a cute one-liner often enough, but these “Tales” already feel twice-told.
The show opens with all the images of natives familiar to whitey: cowboys and Indians, what looks like an Alberto Vargas pin-up of a native woman, the Atlanta Braves logo and lots of feathers. The Public Theater has devoted a chunk of this season to questioning assumptions about American success, most successfully in Danny Hoch’s “Taking Over” and Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Road Show,” and it’s easy to see how Dennis’ jokes about white liberals and systemic unfairness appealed to the same instinct.
The problem is that Dennis isn’t a comfortable performer. Even when his dialogue is his own, he’s stiff and a little apologetic, going through the show’s motions as though afraid of being judged. Some of this is undoubtedly the fault of helmer Herbie Barnes, who gives Dennis a dance number that does him no favors, among other indignities.
It’s not that “Tales” is unbearable. Dennis is at his best when making fun of his semiautobiographical character, which happens just often enough to keep us interested in the show (Simon’s half-mimed excuse for not finishing his homework is notably priceless). Eventually, though, the piece fails to distinguish itself from any number of other pleas for racial understanding and equality, which is pretty much preaching to the converted with the liberal-leaning Public Theater aud.
The theater’s years-old relationship with native culture institute Native Voices at the Autry (the Autry Center was founded, amusingly, by cowboy actor Gene) continues to chug along, but “Tales of an Urban Indian” is unlikely to capture critical acclaim for the initiative.
The solo show is an odd choice for the generally more interesting Public Lab program. The series’ minimalist guidelines — short rehearsal, short run, bare staging — would seem to demand rough stagings of larger works rather than complete stagings of already-inexpensive shows.