Two years of post-shutdown theater has brought to New York stages a slew of solo performers wrestling with subjects like grief, death and the apocalypse — and those are just the comedies. Solo shows are inexpensive to produce and relatively low-lift endeavors for an industry still on shaky ground.
There has been no shortage this fall, and now four solo shows running Off Broadway demonstrate a range of approaches to the form, proving, at least for this round, that baring your inner thoughts and fears pays off. “A Good Day to Me Not to You,” at the Connelly Theater in the East Village, and “Sad Boys in Harpy Land,” at Playwrights Horizons in Midtown Manhattan, opt for all-out vulnerability, dissecting the psyche as if the stage were an operating table. “School Pictures” and “Amusements,” also at Playwrights Horizons, take the opposite tack, with performers who hold themselves at a distance to direct attention elsewhere, but with devices that can be distracting and evasive.
The middle-aged narrator of “A Good Day to Me Not to You” divulges intimate details from the start: She is nursing a surprise case of genital warts, she tells the audience, that has been dormant for the decade since she last had sex.
In this wryly candid confessional, presented by Waterwell, the writer and performer Lameece Issaq plays a New Yorker with a mordant sense of humor who is weathering a downswing: She was forced to to quit orthodontics school because of her bouts of vertigo, and then she was fired from a dental lab for filing away the imperfections in patients’ plaster molds. Now she is nursing HPV and moving into a convent boardinghouse named for St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins and sexual abuse survivors. (The weathered sanctuary set by Peiyi Wong shifts locales under Mextly Couzin’s dynamic lighting.)
Directed with graceful sensitivity by Lee Sunday Evans, the artistic director of Waterwell, Issaq’s performance is both tender and frank, flipping with ease between directly addressing the audience as the narrator and voicing succinctly sketched characters (everyone’s teeth tell a story). Driven by her maternal impulse, first toward her nephew and then a potential child of her own, the narrator is betrayed by what she cannot control, but always returns, by some elliptical path, to the care she owes herself.
In “Sad Boys in Harpy Land,” a thrilling and frenetic mental breakdown of a show, Alexandra Tatarsky, who uses they and them pronouns, inhabits a graduate seminar’s worth of German literary characters like kindergarten drag (the scenic, costume and especially inventive prop design is by Andreea Mincic). A self-described “anxious clown,” they so frequently disrupt their own act with reflexive interrogation that the interruptions become the point. With vibrating eyes, Tatarsky sips from proliferating coffee cups, and they appear locked in a discursive effort to come of age, create something new and reckon with their death drive. (No pressure.)
Tatarsky continues circling back to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, an affluent boy toiling in his bedroom struggling to write a play about self-loathing and inaction. Occasionally, Tatarsky’s madness is expressed in deranged melodies (sound composition is by Shane Riley). How is anyone supposed to create art that makes their identity legible? And why be legible at all?
Directed with bracing invention by Iris McCloughan, “Sad Boys” has the delirious effect of twisting you into communion with a live-wire artist, even if it is hard to tell whether they are laughing, crying or both. Tatarsky’s cumulative argument seems to be that, like the character of the Wandering Jew, whom she plays with a gray beard that trails on the floor, identity exists in process rather than as a fixed set of signifiers.
First names scrawled on pieces of colored construction paper form a set list for “School Pictures,” a mostly sung-through collage, written and performed by Milo Cramer, of impressions gathered from tutoring New York City students. Cramer, who uses they and them pronouns, aims to assemble brief snapshots of the privileged youth: their naive clarity, rowdy insecurity and mandate to excel in a system rigged in their favor. (Cramer notes in the script that the subjects here are fictionalized.)
These portraits of middle schoolers whose parents could afford the tutoring fees are presented, under the direction of Morgan Green, with the sonic equivalent of a crude crayon: a ukulele and atonal talk-singing. Twee? Yes. And grating once it becomes clear that this will be Cramer’s sustained mode of expression for most of the show’s 60 minutes. Sounding out syllables and striking chaotic notes invokes a youthful spirit, but makes a trying task out of tracing artistic intent in the lyrics. A lecture about systemic inequality in the city’s education system comes as a welcome recess, and finally allows Cramer to level with the audience as adults.
There is a childlike quality to the persona assumed by Ikechukwu Ufomadu in “Amusements,” despite the writer and performer’s shawl-collar tuxedo and gentleman’s demeanor. The humor in this stand-up set is, as the title suggests, airy and mild nearly to a fault. In the chasm between Ufomadu’s erudite exterior and simple-minded affect comes a steady breeze of inoffensive punchlines (“Happy Friday to all who celebrate!” “How many of you are alumni of school?”). The resulting eye-roll-to-chuckle ratio will come down to a matter of taste.
As directed here by Nemuna Ceesay, Ufomadu has the gracious and charming sensibility of a spiffed-up Mr. Rogers, never more so than when he ventures into the audience to ask if anyone needs a volunteer and then offers his services. Ufomadu is suave, but also halting and unpolished; his set floats along on a stream of appealing humility.
It’s an act, of course; how much performers reveal of their true nature onstage may be impossible to know. At its most profound, Ufomadu’s brand of literalism indicates the extent to which we all stand on common ground. Where would we be without clothes or shoes? At home, probably, not brave enough to show our naked selves.
A Good Day to Me Not to You
Through Dec. 16 at the Connelly Theater, Manhattan; waterwell.org.
Sad Boys in Harpy Land; School Pictures; and Amusements
All through Dec. 3 at Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan; playwrightshorizons.org.