at Cafe Voltaire

September 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, and 25

Mark McCarthy has a great postmodern premise in Ulysses: What I Did June 4: take the basic structure of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is itself based on Homer’s Odyssey, and use it as the spine for a semiautobiographical one-person performance piece. Even the date of the title, June 4, refers to Bloomsday, June 16, the day Ulysses takes place, and to Joyce’s fascination with numbers and numerology (4 is the square root of 16).

Unfortunately, McCarthy is no budding James Joyce. The highly digressive story he tells–about the last day of his last quarter in college–has neither the resonance nor the constant formal invention of Joyce’s novel. Instead he simply repeats the details of what sounds like a half-true, very mundane day in the life of an American college student: he wakes up, wanders around campus, runs into a few of the local characters. There’s a kid who likes to read the Bible drunk who seems a bit like Buck Mulligan, another who heads a movement advocating Ohio’s secession from the union (a reference to the Irish nationalist in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses), and finally a Leo Bloom-ish father figure named Professor Flowers.

Unlike Joyce’s characters, however, none of McCarthy’s seem anything more than fabrications, created to force the jokey parallel between McCarthy’s journey and Stephen Dedalus’s. Again and again I found myself thinking, “Bullshit, that never happened,” or “Bullshit, he never met anyone like that.” Which is a shame, because if you don’t have a strong story to tell–and McCarthy doesn’t–you’d better have an interesting cast of characters. Unfortunately, not even McCarthy’s narrator and main character seems worthy of being the central figure in a story.

Like a lot of recent college grads, McCarthy has plenty of bitter, witty things to say about the world–most of them drawn from 16-plus years of reading and listening to other people’s ideas about the world–but he doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong sense of himself or a compelling, unique vision. When McCarthy dryly answers a fellow student’s innocent question (“Are we in the same class?”) with “I said I didn’t know because I didn’t know what his parents did for a living,” you can tell he’s joking from the head, not the heart. And as monologuists as different as Spaulding Gray, Cheryl Trykv, and Paula Killen have shown, you can get away with the most digressive and convoluted narrative provided you can present an interesting, believable self-portrait.

Instead, McCarthy depends upon his admittedly strong gift for comedy to “chuckle fuck” (as a playwright friend calls the technique) his way over the weaker points of his performance. Whenever his hour-or-so-long monologue begins to lose steam, which it does very often, McCarthy unleashes a witty quip. At one point he lampoons bogus scholarship by referring to an academic paper entitled “Civil Disobedience and Smokey and the Bandit.” At another he critiques impossible-to-find professors by commenting, “If Salman Rushdie wants to hide out, the best way to do it would be as a tenured professor.”

The fact that these witticisms are so sharp only makes the surrounding narrative seem all the more flaccid. They made me wish McCarthy had taken as his literary model not Joyce but another Irishman, Oscar Wilde, a man who really understood how to tightly weave witty epigrams into the fabric of a strong narrative.