at Sheffield’s School Street Cafe

What separates the artist from the neurotic? The accomplished monologuist from the gabby narcissist? Why do some get paid for telling their life story, and others have to pay a therapist to listen to them? Put another way, why do I find myself caring so deeply when a performer like Spaulding Gray, Jim Carrane, or Jeff Garlin relates in excruciating detail his personal crises but keep looking at my watch when other performers offer material that’s no less autobiographical?

I’ve been bedeviled by such questions ever since I saw David Parris’s lackluster one-man show, I Was a Child of Depression Parents. Wittily subtitled a “Twelve-Step Performance Piece,” it nonetheless lacks both the therapy-born insight and the unifying theme the subtitle implies. Instead Parris–the show’s author and performer–serves up an evening of six half-digested, unevenly performed autobiographical fragments.

Parris starts out on the wrong foot with a trite, not very funny bit. Obeying the third law of stand-up comedy–“Abuse those closest to the stage”–he sits at one of the tables in Sheffield’s cabaret space and pours his heart out to an unwitting patron. Meanwhile behind him an uncredited actress, who appears nowhere else in the show, reveals a series of signs that undercut Parris’s confessions. When he tells us, “I loved college. It was the first time I saw the beauty of diversity,” the sign behind him reads “liberal.” When he says, “I fell in love with this Denzel Washington type,” the sign reads “faggot.” Eventually these signs begin to contradict each other, until by the end Parris has been labeled an idealist and a realist, a liberal and a conservative, gay and homophobic. Parris’s point is all too clear: labels don’t mean much. What he fails to tell us is why we have to sit through a five-minute sketch to learn this.

Of course this preliminary sketch also works as a prologue of sorts, introducing us to David Parris. It works all too well. The flat, incomplete, cliche-ridden world of the first sketch reappears again and again. Parris’s family, packed into the station wagon for a long car trip or quarreling around the dinner table, are indistinguishable from thousands of other American families of the late 60s and early 70s.

The few eccentric details Parris provides–his mother’s Depression-born need to save everything, the family dog’s predilection for Grandma’s leg–are not enough to give the stories that all-important stamp of individuality. Even when he discusses the person he should know best, himself, the stories about his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas, or his life as an actor/waiter in New York and Chicago are so lacking a point of view that they don’t seem firsthand.

Parris’s acting also lacks specificity and definition. In one very confusing sketch he attempts to play all the members of his family arguing around the dinner table, but he merely creates a panoply of bickering voices which all sound more or less like his own.

Only in the last sketch, “Wannabe,” when Parris discusses his lifelong love of African American culture, do we see the individual behind the affable Kansas-born WASP baby boomer. Suddenly Parris the writer and Parris the actor both seem in control. When he describes his work in a food-processing factory, we can hear the deafening machinery and feel the tedium of the assembly line. And when he performs both roles in a scene in which the young Parris discusses Negro spirituals with an older, African American worker, I actually forgot for a moment that both roles were being played by the same actor.

But sadly, nothing else comes close to the power of this last scene. Parris has a long way to go before he understands how to cross the gulf that separates the artistic from the merely therapeutic.