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Theatre in Review: Yeah, But Not Right Now (Soho Playhouse)

A. J. Holmes. Photo: Arin Sang-urai

A.J. Holmes wants you to know he is a terrible person. He also wants you to love him. And to acknowledge his talent. Indeed, it would be nice if you considered him an international star -- a stretch, to be sure, even if he once did play a lead role in the West End. These are the contradictory impulses that animate his one-man confessional cabaret and darn if he doesn't somehow make it all work. You can accept his harshest self-judgments and still find him charming.

Yeah, But Not Right Now is an hour-long monologue punctuated by original songs -- although Holmes also amusingly murders "Put on a Happy Face" and tells a mortifying story on himself in which "Our Love is Here to Stay" plays a prominent role. Otherwise, it's the story of a gifted young looker from California who lands a gig in a hit Broadway musical, leading to long-term employment in the show's national tour and London company. Are you feeling sorry for him yet? Because the way he tells it, you might.

Holmes freely admits the absurdity of a white, heterosexual, employed actor having any personal problems. But agony is often found in the strangest places, and he has a plausible tale of woe to share. As he tells it, he was raised by preternaturally cheerful parents, lovers of show business who idolized him their son for his nascent musical theatre skills. While his sister, the Louise Hovick of this story, was permanently consigned to the sidelines, he was regularly trotted out to perform for guests, thereby giving him an early and addictive taste of applause.

In the show's most amusing moments, Holmes details the deep-seated unreality of his upbringing. His parents' conflicts were settled, after a fashion, with show tunes. His mother -- "the happiest woman in the world," he notes, not quite approvingly -- maintained an upbeat attitude no matter the circumstance. ("Gosh, it was a murder," he imagines her saying while grinning broadly. "It was. Right there in front of me. Cold-blood, nothing I could do.") Such was the performative ethos at home that even the taking of photos was a carefully curated activity, resulting in stylized poses against attractive backgrounds; Holmes may be short of happy memories, but he has a heck of a portfolio. Growing up in this atmosphere of manufactured cheerfulness, it is little wonder that he proved to be a natural for The Book of Mormon.

Hired as a standby for the role of Elder Cunningham in that musical megahit, Holmes soon finds himself taking on the role full-time on the road and in London. This isn't good for his personal life -- he and his girlfriend have just moved in together -- especially since he can't resist the lure of female fans at the stage door. By now, it is obvious even to him that his need for applause and unqualified adoration extends well beyond the final curtain call. It is also clear that he is acting all the time, seeking to fill the void where his self should be.

Does this sound dreary? Like Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child set to music? Don't underestimate Holmes' ability to turn his problems into effervescent entertainment. He doesn't excuse himself, nor does he take himself too seriously, and his songs are extremely catchy acts of self-laceration. In particular, the title tune -- an ode to delaying tactics, for fear of facing the truth about oneself -- is likely to stick in your head for days. Others skewer his mother's interfering ways on Facebook and his people-pleasing ways, which play havoc with his personal life. He delivers them all in the big, soaring voice that one associates with the role of Elder Cunningham.

In the current theatrical climate, it's an open question how much of an audience exists for the comic confessions of a privileged self-saboteur, but he guides himself to a painful moment of reckoning with the lightest of touches. What might, in another performer, seem like navel gazing comes across as blunt honesty, served up with considerable humor and a touch of real feeling. You may even find yourself rooting for him as he stumbles his way toward being "authentically performative."

This is a brief, slender entertainment, padded out by a rotating series of opening acts -- at the performance I caught, it was Josh Breckenridge, currently in the cast of Come from Away -- but consider Yeah, But Not Right Now a calling card for a strong performer flexing his writing muscles. A. J. Homes may finally have to accept that he has more to offer than a happy face.--David Barbour

(27 September 2021)

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