Hinton Battle: Largely Live

at the Apollo Theater

TV and Me: Confessions of a Vidiot Savant

at the Apollo Theater

By Jack Helbig

Hinton Battle, star of the recently closed Chicago production of Ragtime, is one of those in-between celebrities, the kind of performer publicists tout in their press releases and theater critics mention casually as if everyone knows who he is. Yet he remains largely unknown because most of America doesn’t follow theater that closely–not even Broadway, the street where three-time Tony winner Battle has led most of his professional life. Brilliant talent Nathan Lane also worked hard there all of his life, but won popular recognition only when he made The Bird Cage. And he still gets just a fraction of the attention a TV star like Jennifer Love Hewitt does.

Television is the biggest disseminator of information we have, yet more and more it’s just about TV. Many people complain about the quality of the writing, but the real problem these days is how little of the real world makes it onto the TV screen. Tune in a talk show and you’ll find a handful of people discussing their upcoming television drama, their current movie, even their last appearance on the talk show. Meanwhile there’s a whole world of stories we never hear because they don’t help push this or that new sitcom.

Battle’s adventures on Broadway alone would fill a show. And one-person pieces have done wonders for other performers. Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show in the early 80s propelled her to Hollywood and, after The Color Purple, an endless series of fat checks for appearances in mostly mediocre movies. And Spalding Gray, after years and years of ensemble work–first in Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, then in its successor, the Wooster Group–became nationally famous by playing himself.

This is clearly the road Battle wants to follow in Hinton Battle: Largely Live, though if he wants his solo career to take off he’s going to have to work harder on his storytelling. His script, which he wrote with Hollywood wordsmith Tom Purcell, reads like an early draft for what could be a great show.

The broad outlines of Battle’s story are set out in short, fragmented scenes. First he recounts how he became a dancer: growing up in D.C., he was identified early as a boy with talent and given several scholarships to ballet schools, where he was sent, often against his will, to be taught by teachers so eccentric and cruel they might have been created by Dickens. While on a ballet scholarship in New York City in the late 70s, he auditioned for a role in The Wiz on a lark and was accepted into the chorus, then given the role of the Scarecrow.

Battle is a terrific performer, with tremendous energy. I’ve taken improv classes with him and know what an affable person he is, both onstage and off. I know how loose and emotionally open he can be under the lights, and how easily he breaks down the wall between himself and his audience. But he needs to spend more time on the details of his personal journey. Every stage of his life passes too quickly. We’ve barely gotten to know the slightly embarrassed schoolkid taking the bus every day to ballet before Battle moves on to the next phase. He also leaves out key transitions. When did he stop being the reluctant student dancer, begging his mother every year to let him give up ballet, and become devoted enough to make dance his life’s work? And why?

Nor does he give his career-threatening hip problem any emotional context. A medical miracle allowed him to have his hip replaced, and he does discuss that, acting out in a series of highly stylized scenes the process of learning to walk and dance again. But we never believe he’s disclosing the full emotional impact of this personal crisis.

Nor do we ever get a sense of the stakes in his physical battle. Which leads me to the biggest flaw in this show: he never quite succeeds in answering the “why should we care?” question all audiences unconsciously ask of solo performers. He gives a lot of partial answers. His life story is unique (“African-American male gets sucked into the female-dominated world of ballet and grows to like it!”). He has an interesting, if not fully expressed, point of view on the 1968 riots in D.C.–his experiences alone would be worth a 45-minute show. And he does have plenty to dish out, including some dirt, on the Broadway legends he’s worked with over the years. But by flitting from story to story and topic to topic, Battle robs us of what might have been a truly powerful, entertaining evening.

Given the right material–or, more precisely, the right structure for his material–Battle could blow the roof off the theater. But right now his show begins with a bang and ends with a whimper.

One advantage Battle has is that he’s led an interesting life full of adventure and conflict. All Mike Toomey has is TV.

Like most of us suburban white boys who grew up in the 60s and 70s, Toomey spent large portions of his childhood in front of the idiot box. And again like the rest of us, his brain is filled with episodes of Batman, Scooby Doo Where Are You?, Gilligan’s Island, and other unforgettable shows instead of memories of growing up. Unlike most of us, however, Toomey has found a way to capitalize on his addiction.

But though he’s subtitled his show “Confessions of a Vidiot Savant,” Toomey is totally uninterested in the reasons for anything, never for a second wondering why he spent so much time–and still spends so much time–in the company of cartoonish characters or why he cares so much about them. Instead he’s happy just skimming the surface, joking about the flaws of 60s shows: Batman’s spare tire, Adam West’s odd way of pausing all the time, the awful cartoons on Sunday morning. Toomey’s head is filled with junk, as he’d be the first to admit.

In fact, one of the pleasures of TV and Me is trying to guess which obscure television show Toomey’s going to crack wise about next. But after a while one starts to wish he had more to say than that Mr. Ed had a funny voice or the animation was sure lame on Clutch Cargo, wasn’t it? We get no strong sense of the man behind the autobiographical lines. Toomey never even makes it clear why an apparently normal adult with a wife and kids would continue to spend so much time in TV’s dreamland.