Talking to Myself

Dave Awl

at the Neo-Futurarium, through May 10

By Jack Helbig

If I had to blame one person for the current delusion among performance artists that there’s nothing audiences crave more than yet another autobiographical show, I’d point the finger–my middle finger–at Spalding Gray. It was Gray after all who first proved you could win fame, fortune, and movie deals talking about your life onstage. And until fairly recently, he did a fabulous job of finding just the right stories to tell–the ones that made him seem funny yet sympathetic, foolish yet not stupid, a likable loser. But now there are dozens of faux-Spaldings running around, thinking that all they have to do is stand onstage exposing every detail of their pathetic lives and we’ll applaud them.

Dave Awl isn’t one of those self-obsessed writer-performers. Or at least he didn’t used to be. What I remember most clearly about his work in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Every Speck of Dust, and Collapsible Detachable Self-Cleaning Universe Show is how utterly giving and self-effacing he was. Just the sort of person you’d want in an ensemble show. Even when he was the producer, the brains behind the show, and even when his bits were by far the best, the most cogent and intelligent–as they certainly were in Every Speck of Dust and Collapsible–Awl took pains to be just one of the gang. And though I never caught Awl’s brainchild The Pansy Kings, I have a lot of trouble believing that in a performance cabaret for a handful of talented gay men, he’d be any different than he was in his other shows.

Talking to Myself is a different matter. Here he shares the stage with no one, serving up 90 minutes of Dave Awl reflecting on Dave Awl. The problem is that there really isn’t enough of Dave Awl to fill an hour and a half. Or, to be more exact, there isn’t enough that he wants to reveal to fill 90 minutes of stage time.

Awl is not the sort of open, candid performer who can pull off this kind of show. You have to be willing, like solo virtuoso Donna Blue Lachman, to open your heart and risk making a total ass of yourself, a tactic Awl is clearly not comfortable with. Even when he seems to be sharing a bit of personal pain with the audience, as when he complains about gay personal ads that make insensitive comments about heavy men, he seems to be holding back as much as he’s revealing.

Instead of giving us pure, unfiltered Dave Awl, Awl gives us his commentaries on Dave Awl. Some of these come in the form of delightfully playful, beautiful, but ultimately baffling metaphysical poems, like “I € Am,” in which Awl teases us with the difference between being an “I” and being an “Am.” Others come in the form of slight personal essays like “The Dragonfly Stares at Itself,” in which he compares a photo of a dragonfly regarding the shell from which it’s emerged with his own experience looking at photos of his former selves. Or they come in the form of slyly ironic scenes. In “Talking to Myself: The Dream Date,” Awl apparently acts out the answer to the tongue-in-cheek question he poses in the program: “If you could take yourself to lunch, what would the two of you talk about?” What does Awl talk about? Nothing–he’s silent throughout the five-minute piece. Get it? If not, you will. Awl gives the audience plenty of chances to see that he has nothing to say to himself–or us.

The problem with these bits is that they don’t convince us we’re seeing the man behind the mask, a fact of which Awl seems only dimly aware. Which is why he fills half his show with other stuff only tangentially related to the show’s narcissistic theme. Some of this material is witty in a Neo-Futurist sort of way: Awl’s graceful but killing imitation of himself as a rock star fits this category, as does his whimsical story about meeting a man in the middle of the night who claimed to be Odin.

And some of this material–most notably a transcendent fairy tale about a woman who keeps the ocean locked up in a jar–gives me hope that Awl will emerge from this “I, me, me, mine” phase of his career as a writer-performer worth paying attention to again. Too much of the time, however, Talking to Myself reminded me of an old fortune-cookie saying: Man wrapped up in self make small package.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.