Blame it on the rise of comedy clubs and programming-starved cable channels. Whatever, it seems anyone who has ever wrung a laugh or a tear from a listener suddenly fancies himself a monologist. Predictably, the result is lots of at best mediocre one-person shows, with few performers possessing the insights and skill to present something special. Claudia Shear has both in spades, which makes her “Blown Sideways Through Life” such a compelling show both in its original small-theater setting and now on TV. Ostensibly a comedic look at her experiences in 64 jobs — from receptionist at a whorehouse to stock person at Barnes & Noble –“Blown Sideways” ends up a moving tribute to the complexity and indomitability of the human spirit. Shear is such a masterful storyteller, and so dominating a presence, you hardly notice that no one else is onstage with her. Intelligent and in pain, she’s beloved by many yet often feels alone. She’s the one who’s smart, smart-alecky and smarting.
And so while her show — which begins with a litany of workplace cliches and firing lines and then takes us The intimacy is only sporadically served by Shear and director Christopher Ashley’s efforts to open up the story visually. Whereas the stage show — it debuted at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1993 and played at the Coronet Theater in West Hollywood last year — relies on her obvious literary gifts, the “American Playhouse” version tries to round out the piece visually.
Sometimes it helps, notably when she tells of her experience as an artist’s model while lying in a classical pose in a painter’s studio. And when she riffs about her youthful idealization of Buster Keaton, a clip from “The General,” illustrating his mixture of epochal sadness and indestructible strength, perfectly complements her own qualities.
But other times — taking us through a street in her native Flatbush, for instance — it simply feels like she’s gilding the lily.
Shear and Ashley, who worked with the performer in developing the show originally, have also trimmed the text from the 65 minutes of the stage show to a taut 55 minutes for TV, with no noticeable loss of quality or clarity.
If anything, the “American Playhouse” version feels more focused, which is ironic, since Shear otherwise relishes her mercurial, impulsive nature; this is a woman who is proud of holding some jobs for less than a full shift.
And it is precisely this impetuousness that makes the simple clarity of her show’s ultimate message — that “nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter, just a prostitute” — so potent.