My Broken Brain
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 15, 2010
My Broken Brain begins with its writer-performer Michael Hirstreet introducing himself and explaining very matter-of-factly why his show has this title. Michael has a brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation), a congenital condition that can lead to hemorrhaging in the brain, which is very painful and feels, he later tells us, like your brain is exploding. (Learn more about brain AVM here.)
Most of My Broken Brain is not about Michael's condition, though it hovers over the proceedings quite inevitably. Who wants to hear that a vital, talented young man of 26 could have a stroke or worse at any moment? At any rate, Michael proceeds to tell stories of his childhood, and these make up the bulk of his show. He talks about his parents: his father, a Jewish New Jerseyite without a driver's license who would frequently wake little Mike up in the middle of the night and invite him to play basketball in the dark; his mother, from Ecuador, a devout churchgoer whose own mother appears a few times to warn Mike away from the evils of Satan. He talks about going to church with his mother (and, eventually, his father); he talks about what sounds like his Dad's brush with mental illness; he talks about his best friends at school—first a dork named Louis and later a "cool," more dangerous character named Johnny. He talks about his first love, Anna, who also happens to be Johnny's girlfriend. He talks about his first trip abroad, to London.
Hirstreet does great character work, portraying all of these diverse types vividly and humorously. Something that's really effective in My Broken Brain is the occasional use of projections (by Theo Macabeo) that blend photos, video, and more abstract images to illustrate parts of the story. There are a few props that Hirstreet works with during the show (a basketball, an old Teddy Ruxpin doll) and there's one costume change (a hospital gown over his casual t-shirt and pants); I wondered how necessary these are and craved more of Michael just talking to us, one-on-one, as he relates his own interesting and very personal history.
The play is directed and developed by Leah Benavides, who one hopes can help Hirstreet find more focus in this material if they choose to continue to work on My Broken Brain. What's missing from the piece is a clear raison d'etre, something that helps us understand why he's sharing these particular stories and why they are important to him. When he talks about his brain, it's instantly compelling; I wanted to know how all of these other disparate people and events that shaped him in his formative years came together to bring him to this place and time. I wanted Hirstreet to convey more of what it means to be him, rather than just entertain me with a string of amusing tall tales.