Because he’s young and not wholly untalented, you want to give Jonathan Adam Ross the benefit of the doubt. Surely he didn’t intend for “Walking in Memphis,” his one-man recollection of growing up Jewish in the South, to come across this way. After all, the tales he tells involve everything from musical theater to breast cancer, and he keeps reminding us how stories “keep the past alive.” Surely, then, Ross intended to craft a tribute to the rich world that made him, and not an endlessly loving ode to himself.
But whatever its aims, the show is solipsism in a cheap disguise, tossing up veils of empathy to mask the narrator’s self-satisfaction.
Even the structure forces attention on the storyteller instead of his stories. The conceit is that when he steps onstage, he’s just chatting, and all his childhood memories are taking him by surprise. He’ll suddenly remember, say, the time his family lied to his mentally impaired sister about how women aren’t allowed to drive, and that will inspire imitations of his father and a cozy homily about overcoming obstacles.
Few thesps can convincingly convey rehearsed spontaneity, and Ross, who delivers every line with the cadence of a standup comic, proves particularly ill-equipped. Director Chantal Pavageaux lets him affect endless overwrought mannerisms, so that his encounters with his past always feature wistful pauses where Ross can close his eyes, tilt his head and sigh.
In between the one-note impressions and meaningful gazes, he occasionally darts to a piano to play snatches of the title song. Though they are ostensibly inspired by the anecdotes that precede them, these interludes do little to illuminate the saga of a lewd local barber or a Christian who attends bar mitzvahs. Mostly, the ditties let Ross showcase his ability to gird even the simplest notes with meant-to-be-soulful vocal adlibs.
With all this showy performing going on, Ross’ history gets reduced from a subject to a tool, important less for its substance than for how it lets the narrator demonstrate some feeling or another.
Such arrogance might be excusable if he actually probed his life, but every single yarn wends back to the same conclusion — that Jonathon Ross is a super, sensitive guy.
Dramaturgically, this strategy is most frustrating when he introduces characters that could actually be worth knowing. Take his childhood nanny: His near-stereotypical imitation of her “rural black” accent notwithstanding, he still suggests she’s a woman with something to say. But her recounting of the day Martin Luther King was shot near her home gets truncated so she can assert how much she loved Ross when he was in her care. Her final words, in fact, are not about civil rights or even herself. She trails off praising our narrator as a “sweet little boy.”
And, sure, he seems sweet enough; he at least oozes charisma and shows occasional flair for comic timing. But as likable as he may be, Ross’ story will remain less than engaging until it makes room for a few more people.