Even when “Saturday Night Live” disappointed in the ’90s and ’00s, one cast member’s dead-on impressions of Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Sean Connery reliably supplied mirth. Yet even Darrell Hammond’s co-workers were unaware of his ongoing personal anguish. The actor in question steps out as himself in “The Darrell Hammond Project,” ingeniously and candidly bringing Hammond’s tale of chaos, cutting, rehab and recovery to the intimate Potiker Theater at La Jolla Playhouse.
Live confessional monodramas — so inexpensive to produce, and targeted to a reality-TV-fueled, seemingly insatiable appetite for personal misery — are something of a drug on the market these days. (Fringe Fests worldwide would probably collapse if addiction journeys and coming-out narratives were denied to them.) To stand out from the pack, celebs and civilians alike need to hit three key benchmarks, all of which Hammond, co-writer Elizabeth Stein and helmer Christopher Ashley have under control or are working toward.
First, the monologist’s circumstances ought to seem unique, or at least worthy of all the attention. Here Hammond has going for him his status as celebrity casualty, with the jaw-dropping incongruity of departing NBC’s Studio 8H after killer appearances to hang out in uptown crack dens.
We also learn that his incredible vocal facility is enhanced by color associations: Ted Koppel was blue and Pee Wee Herman green, but red was a trauma trigger. David Weiner’s lighting and Chris Luessmann’s sound effects collaborate in chilling, in-the-moment demos of this unusual, scary symptom.
Second, to avoid charges of oh-poor-me narcissism, it helps if the autobiography can readily be pushed from the particular to the universal. Ransacking their longer, more discursive 2011 memoir “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked,” Hammond and Stein sidestep discussions of wife and child, spirituality, cocaine arrest and “SNL” disenchantment in favor of a single potent mystery: “Why do I wake up every single day of my life, and wonder why something terrible will happen to me?” Many of us can relate to daily dread, likewise to memories of a distant mother and a military dad defined by his son as possessing “bottomless rage.”
Other audience-empathy touchpoints include the 39 (count ’em) doctors who systematically misdiagnose and mis-prescribe, starting in college through the stardom years and beyond. The sting with which Hammond limns several of these fatheads will strike a chord in anyone who’s ever been bamboozled by an incompetent medico. So will the stern warmth exuded by No. 40, the specialist who finally shows the way to a happy — if tenuous — ending.
A self-exam monologue’s most important benchmark is surely the subject’s personal magnetism. Without that, who wants to be there? A huge reservoir of good will accompanies Hammond to La Jolla, judging by the reaction to video sequences featuring his greatest hits. (Ashley might consider adding even more in future engagements, to point up the contrasts between Hammond’s simultaneous upward rise and downward spiral.)
We’re less familiar with the man beneath the bouffant Trump wig, and on press night, further acquaintance was compromised by the serious cold the performer was pointedly battling. Were his downcast eyes and constantly pained mien a result of flu, or part of his normal affect? Hard to say, though occasional smiles and eye twinkles emerging past the blear were encouraging. (And if the memoir’s wryly sunny tone is any evidence, the “Project” should lighten up as the health improves.)
Interestingly, on a wheezing opening night, Hammond interrupted none of his dozens of impressions with coughing. Not once. Is his work ethic so strong that illness be damned, he was not going to deprive his audience of their pleasure in his wheelhouse? If so, it would be very much in line with the underlying theme of both book and show: the restorative powers of talent and a generous spirit.