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MORPHINE JOHNNY, at the Playground. Jeff Ahern has a knack for creating vivid, cartoonish characters: the bullying good ol’ boy, the loudmouthed idiot, the quietly smoldering hotel concierge. Even when his comic creations remind us of other, better-known actors’ personae–his southern slob, for example, looks and acts a lot like John Goodman, and his intense hotel clerk recalls Bruce Dern–Ahern, formerly a member of the Second City touring company, has the wit and experience to make these familiar types do new tricks.

If only he had a more solid script. Or the guts to wing it, a la Jeff Garlin, and deliver a fully improvised one-hour solo performance. Instead he gives us a hybrid that’s too haphazardly structured and sloppily executed to pass for a carefully rehearsed show but that lacks the spontaneity of a purely improvised evening. Structured as a series of comic portraits, Morphine Johnny often has a flat, canned feeling, as if Ahern were performing material that had once sparkled but hadn’t really worked in weeks. Every monologue ended in the same whimper, as Ahern trailed off into silence–the stage equivalent of a fade-out–before taking a gulp from his water bottle (the Playground was sweltering Saturday night) and beginning another soon-to-fizzle soliloquy.

–Jack Helbig