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Theatre in Review: Chris Gethard: Career Suicide (Lynn Redgrave Theater)

Chris Gethard. Photo: Clay Anderson

You could say that Chris Gethard's solo piece is about his career in suicide. As he freely admits, from the age of 14 he has been dogged by panic attacks and pervasive feelings of sadness. There was, he insists, no reason for this: He was a typical kid, grooving on Star Wars, pro wrestling, and Marvel Comics. Until he fell into a gray funk, there were no dark clouds on his horizon. Still, a couple of years later, while driving, he passed too close to a pick-up truck, fully aware that this action could end in his death. It was a strategic move, he notes: "This way, your parents don't have to be the parents of the kid who killed himself," he explains. "They can be the parents of the kid who died in that car crash, because we don't judge car crashes but we judge suicide."

As it happened, he was sideswiped, pushed off the road, and only mildly shaken up. In his telling, this brush with tragedy turns hilarious as he channels the trio of "Carmela Sopranos" -- his generic term for New Jersey housewives -- offering a chorus of nosy comments, but no real help, as he sits trapped in the driver's seat. This leads to a frightening encounter with the other driver, which is peacefully ended by an interloper with extensive diplomatic skills. The episode is laced with equal amounts of tension and hilarity, building to a punch line that, at the performance I attended, sent a gasp rippling through the room.

It's a typical example of this low-key performer's sneaky, sideways manner, treating his deadly serious material so casually and with such keenly observed wit that you begin to get a sense of a life spent struggling with chronic mental illness. Conceding that "suicide has a real branding problem," he recalls the years spent running from his troubles, until a former girlfriend hands him an ultimatum: Unless he comes clean to his mother before the morning, she will do it for him. Cornered, he finally asks for help. For him, it's a liberating experience. It is also, he adds, "the last moment of my mom's life where she gets to think she has a normal kid."

The rest of Career Suicide tracks Gethard's adventures in therapy. While noting that a cocktail of prescription drugs gets him through the day, he makes no attempt at soft-pedaling their often terrible side effects. One drug gives him the physique of "a sad uncle, who's, like, [moaning] 'Maybe I should have gotten married'." Another induces attacks of paranoia, in which he imagines that New Jersey buses are loaded with surveillance devices. Yet another interferes with his sexual performance. A brief stint with Adderall leads to a horrific case of hemorrhoids -- although, he adds wryly, speaking of the drug's focusing capabilities, "I got so much done that summer." He is particularly uproarious when detailing his relationship with Barb, his therapist, who breaks every rule of professional ethics, especially those involving boundaries -- among other things, she attends his performances and gets a ride home with his parents -- but who is also oddly right for him, if only because she doesn't put up with any bull. Even more helpful are the songs of The Smiths -- his devotion to that band and his spot-on imitation of Morrissey will speak to many audience members in their 30s and 40s -- and the moment when he has a potentially life-saving epiphany: "I'm small and I don't matter, and that's beautiful."

That's about as close to a eureka moment as Gethard gets. There are no panaceas, no magic bullets. But he does find comic gold in his career as an assistant on a Comedy Central series, ending up, thanks to his windowless apartment and office, the only resident of California who has to be forced into the sunlight; a dating career so iffy that he considers having slept with two girls in four months to be "a Sinatra-esque hot streak;" an epic drunk rendered as a series of shocking, laugh-provoking blackouts, ending in Barb's blunt announcement that he is an alcoholic; and, after years of sobriety, falling off the wagon with a massive dose of Molly at the Bonnaroo Festival, which, not surprisingly, unleashes an epic case of the blues. His tale reaches a climax of sorts when, appearing in a sketch at Upright Citizens Brigade with 30 Rock's < b>Jack McBrayer (who gets mercilessly teased here), things go wrong and Gethard flees into the night, ending up in Weehawken, New Jersey, gazing at the New York skyline and contemplating jumping off a cliff. You won't be surprised to hear that, yet again, Barb intervenes, at once inappropriately and effectively.

The short, bespectacled, seemingly serene Gethard proves to be an expert guide to his own personal Via Dolorosa, never playing his suffering for an easy laugh, yet never losing sight of the absurdity of his situation. His easy, affable manner makes us into his confidantes. It's a high-wire balancing act, and his director, Kimberly Senior, must share the credit for seeing that he never puts a foot wrong.

The show has a slightly odd set design, by Brendan Boston, that is dominated by what appears to be a blurry, abstract black-and-white rendering of a map of New York, backed by LED lighting; the best thing you can say about it is it never distracts. One amusing touch is the row of couches and comfy chairs down front, placed there to create the aura of a New Jersey living room. The lighting, by Jen Schriever and Trevor Dewey, and sound, by Ryan Rumery, are typically solid jobs.

Career Suicide becomes surprisingly moving as Gethard finally, after many reverses, begins to find an equilibrium that allows him to flourish professionally. (He's currently appearing in Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice, one of the best films about show business I've ever seen.) He also finds happiness with a wife he deeply loves, even if she drives him mad by leaving the kitchen cabinet doors open, a peculiar form of torture for someone with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Then again, maybe it's a good thing that his life partner doesn't treat his illness with kid gloves. As Gethard notes, recalling not getting his Saturday Night Live contract renewed, "This is the first time in my life that I realize comedy does not exist to save me." Indeed, he learns to save himself, with a little help from his family and friends. -- David Barbour


(14 October 2016)

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