Jeffrey Essmann: The Usual Freak Show...
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 2, 2007
Abel Carter, the chipper but closety and vaguely creepy host of "An American Treasury of Song," a Public Access TV show in an unidentified Midwestern American city, is supposed to be talking about the music of ante-bellum America: "Beautiful Dreamer," minstrels, that sort of thing. But he can't stop digressing—at length—about that one note at the end of "The Man That Got Away" (the Carnegie Hall recording) when Judy just knocks his socks off; or about the local production of The Pajama Game that his accompanist worked on, which proved to be such a controversial choice that most of the book had to excised (allowing them to focus on the relationships between the characters).
Now, if you're still with me, perhaps even smiling with a bit of recognition, then Jeffrey Essmann is looking for you: you need to be in the audience of his new show at La MaMa, The Usual Freak Show. It's very funny and very smart and all delivered in Essmann's delightfully low-key style, with a similarly understated (but just as terrific) Michael John LaChiusa at the piano. (Yes, Michael John LaChiusa: he was Essmann's accompanist back in the late '80s/early '90s, before he became one of the most famous American theatre composers.)
Essmann plays four characters in extended monologues/vignettes that each puncture, at least a little bit, the shallow pop-culture-obsessed American soul. In addition to Abel, we meet Jean-Louis DeBris, a French existentialist slam poet; Vivyen, fashion magazine publisher and doyenne extraordinaire (you can hear a sample of her on the nytheatrecast that we recorded with Essmann); and Barbie (i.e., Mattel's Barbie), on the skids and at the end of her rope in her latest (last?) venue, "The Barbie Nightclub."
It all occasions some sharp yet gentle satire and some genuinely hilarious comedy. Essmann fills out the evening with a fascinating piece called "Johannes, Pyotr & Marge" whose central surprise explains its title; I couldn't possibly tell you more. There are also a couple of standup sets, of the kind you'd see on a variety show or in a club—funny and incisive but slightly out of place in The Club at La MaMa, perhaps, where edgy is the norm.
If you don't have any idea what would be funny about calling The Pajama Game risque, or why it matters that it's the Carnegie Hall recording of "Man That Got Away," well, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you do, I think you'll have a fine time with Essmann at his Usual Freak Show. I left wanting much more, and I hope Essmann—who has only just returned to the NYC performance scene after about a decade away—will keep it coming.