In Channeling Kevin Spacey, written by Elan Wolf Farbiarz and Cory Terry, we are asked to root for Charlie, a beaten down schlub of a nice-guy stereotype who regularly gets dumped on by his mean spirited girlfriend, bosses, co-workers, best friend, etc. The abuse heaped upon him is so outsized it can only be described as unbelievable. The only bright spot in his life is his daily interaction with bagel girl and object of his obsession Sherry, who comes complete with her own rock ballad music cue.
One particularly bad day, Charlie realizes he’s been “channeling Kevin Spacey,” not the actual Kevin Spacey, but the types of characters Kevin Spacey often plays: the beaten down nice-guy, the Lester Burnham pre-pot smoking, the Verbal Kint before the plot twist. In a moment of clarity, Charlie looks out to the audience and asks “Am I a pussy?” He must go through a transformation like a Kevin Spacey character in a movie would, except instead of finding a stronger version of himself, Charlie decides to channel Al Pacino, spending the rest of the play with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel, gold chains blaring, quoting Scarface and The Godfather. This new found toughness backfires, of course, and ends up alienating Sherry, the one person who might have actually liked him as Charlie.
The play ends on a satisfyingly bright note, with lessons learned and our hero winning the girl, and there are quite a few laughs throughout, especially for movie buffs. The splicing together of famous Kevin Spacey and Al Pacino movie quotes is a highlight, creating a scene in which the two non-present entities argue over Charlie’s shoulders like the metaphorical angel and devil telling him what to do. But the gratuitous use of movie and TV references can also become a source of confusion. By pulling from too many unrelated reference points, ranging from old Saturday Night Live skits to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, focus is blurred and it becomes unclear exactly what world these characters inhabit. While the individual jokes are often funny, they don’t add up to a cohesive picture.
Justin R. G. Holcomb plays Charlie with a straightforwardness that is endearing even when the character is in situations that are absurd, and handles the huge amount of narration using a well-timed mug to the audience to make us feel in on the joke and keep us engaged. All of the other characters, and there are many, are played by Jamil Chokachi, who tears across the stage like a whirling dervish, bouncing from one character to the next in the blink of an eye and sometimes the switch of a hat. His bold physical choices make each new character interesting and unique, and he even manages to muster some up some chemistry with Charlie as both Sherry and a bisexual Latin lover.
Both actors bring a lot of energy to their roles, almost compensating for the bigness of a space that seems like a poor fit for a play that would probably work better in a smaller theatre. The staging by director and co-writer Farbiarz tries to make up for the distance, at one point going so far as to having Charlie run through the audience, but this only highlights the problem by making us aware of just how far he has to go. More than any other element, the lighting design defines the space using bright colors and textures, creating a variety of locations on the almost bare stage and bringing a tight focus to some scenes, helping to create the intimacy this production calls for.
This play has won multiple Best of Fest awards at Fringe Festivals throughout Canada, but in its latest incarnation at St. Luke’s Theatre, the play feels like a 13-year-old boy whose voice has just cracked. At times adorable in its gangly charm, but often just uncomfortable, the production struggles to fill the space or to establish the world of the play. Ultimately, Channeling Kevin Spacey is a funny if chaotic play that tells one man’s story of self discovery through the language of popular movies and cultural references.