Jamie Wax recently brought his hilarious one-man comedy Goin' to Jackson back to Le Chat Noir. His previous outing was last January. Once again, he had no trouble packing the house with his curious divertimento about mental unbalance. Wax wrote the one-man show, including the music and lyrics for three of the songs. He brings to life five inmates of East Louisiana State Hospital as well as Dr. Roger Tomkins, chief of staff, a title you should take advisedly.
We are all used to jokes about the therapist being nuttier than the patient. From the outset, Tomkins seems like a cross between a televangelist and a serial killer. Something is strange, even if you can't quite put your finger on it. Tomkins calls the audience 'his peers, a who's who of psychological dysfunction" " casting us in the roles of professionals who would know the state's preeminent mental institution and its chief of staff. He tells us he has arranged a contest in order to choose a spokesperson for the cause of mental-health care " a sort of American Idol contest or asylum olympics. Why the inmates cooperate can perhaps be explained by their warped perspectives on reality, and because he's promised them they'll get out early. Why we, the therapists, cooperate is less clear. There is much to be revealed in therapy, and though some of it is illogical, it pours out with gusto and is quite entertaining.
Wax has toured the play in 36 states, performing mostly at colleges and in cabarets. Apparently the jokes work even without the zing of local reference. Nonsense must have a touch of universality.
The staging of Jackson is simplicity itself. There's a screen onstage. Wax comes out as a character, does a monologue, then goes behind the screen and with the slightest of costuming or prop changes transforms into the next character. This is not quick-change theater. We know the characters more by body language and attitude than by superficialities of dress.
As you might suspect, political correctness gets a rough ride in this upside-down world. We're invited to laugh at mental dysfunction and the dysfunction industry. We even laugh at (or with) a blind man named Mark Clairewood who taps out into the spotlight with his folding cane. Mark is vexed by the way the sighted deal with those who lack sight. His grandmother, for instance, tried to break his habit of masturbating by screaming that he would regain his sight if he continued. She was wrong, he assures us wryly. He also recalls a benefactor who ordered a fireworks display for a school for the blind. The result: nearly 300 blind kids politely oohing and ahhing over pyrotechnics they couldn't see.
For Wax, absurdity serves as the counterbalance to political incorrectness. Bryce Giamani, for instance, is neurotic and has a caustic streak. (Imagine a venomous Mark Twain.) Bryce notes that he was declared unfit to enter the military, when it was trying to subdue the Viet Cong. 'Mentally unfit for a war!" he howls.
A change of pace and gender comes with Cleontyne Willis, who I took to be a black woman, though her race is only hinted at. Cleontyne suffers from chronic bladder trouble. With the finely tuned sense of form that characterizes this show throughout, her bladder trouble returns as a theme just as we are forgetting it.
Wax started his career as a standup comic at the tender age of 14. He also has written seven plays and done considerable acting, including portraying a priest suspected of molestation in last year's Doubt at Southern Rep. This depth of experience gives Wax's zany script its coherence and poise. The same can be said of his comic turns. Often, a character seems too extreme to be sustained, but Wax steps confidently into each role and pulls it off. He connects with the audience, and he lives up to the outrageous material he has concocted.
Goin' to Jackson is produced by All Kinds of Theatre. Mike Esneault plays his own musical arrangements on the keyboard, and Su Gonczy designed the lighting. The show is silly and irresistible " cabaret at its finest. Here's hoping we don't have to wait too long to see it again.
- Jamie Wax recently reprised his one-man show Goin' to Jackson at Le Chat Noir.