I’m Afraid to Quit My Job

Frank Melcori

at the Lunar Cabaret and Full Moon Cafe, through May 31

Are You Happy?

Marcia Wilkie

at the Live Bait Theater, through May 4

By Jack Helbig

Frank Melcori is not a very polished performer. He doesn’t have a great range. He doesn’t have a lot of energy onstage (in fact sometimes he’s as sluggish as someone who’s eaten a little too much starch for dinner). And he doesn’t have many characters in his repertoire–only himself, or rather a simplified, slightly exaggerated version of the man who walks through the theater before and after the show schmoozing with his friends.

What Melcori does have is a disarming openness, which enables the audience to empathize with him. Watching his autobiographical pieces, which usually rehash some recent event in his life, I find it nearly impossible not to care about the man. Even when his material is as personal and utterly self-absorbed as it is in his current solo show, I’m Afraid to Quit My Job, Melcori remains fascinating. This is quite a feat, since all he does in I’m Afraid is rehash the reasons he dislikes his day job (with Catholic Charities), why he took the job in the first place (to pay for his house), and why he’s reluctant to give it up (he’s a coward) even though he’d love to do more writing.

Of course, Melcori takes care that his rants against work are woven into a coherent, compelling story, complete with flashbacks, describing a youth spent dreaming of becoming a great beat poet and explaining how he got stuck with a house needing so many repairs. And since he seems to understand that a little of this sort of storytelling goes a long way, he ends the show before he overstays his welcome. (That alone is remarkable in a world where all too many performers confuse enlightening an audience with boring them.)

From time to time Melcori indulges in a little postmodern playfulness, imitating himself in his office, pretending to perform his nine-to-five drudgery while he’s really writing the show we’re watching right now. But most of the charm in his work comes from the way he carefully exposes the thousand deaths he suffers every day because of his cowardice. He admits repeatedly throughout the show that, for all his kvetching, he probably won’t quit his despised job at all–that six months from now you’ll run into him and he’ll still be stuck in his cubicle, still writing shows on company time and trying to get up the energy to quit.

Of course, if Melcori does quit his job and start living the life of the beat writer he’s always wanted to be, he might lose his empathic connection with the audience. Ninety percent of Melcori’s attraction is that he looks, acts, and talks just like the office drudge we office workers fear we’ve become yet his soul is free. Or at least free enough to dream the dreams of flight and artistic greatness that we all dream while we process our words, push our papers, and alphabetize our files.

At first glance Marcia Wilkie seems another unpolished performer in the Melcori vein, standing alone onstage, speaking directly to the audience, casually revealing in story after story her complicated, amusing spirit. But in fact Wilkie is a far more sophisticated writer and performer than she lets on.

In her current hour-long one-woman show, Are You Happy?–which premiered last summer at Live Bait and has been revived for a short run–Wilkie plays with the notion of autobiographical performance by presenting six somewhat connected first-person stories that clearly reveal facets of her personality but are not all told from her point of view. In one segment, for example, she impersonates an elderly aunt, recounting her hardscrabble life on a farm and discussing her upcoming first trip to the ocean. With just a hunch of her shoulders and a slight tightening of her voice, Wilkie transforms herself utterly into this elderly person. Not the sort of trick you’d expect from a performer best known for being her plain old sweet self–the likable tomboy next door–in shows like Duck, Duck, Goose and This Girl I Know.

Nor does Wilkie seem particularly anxious to clarify which characters represent aspects of herself and which are based on people she knows. It’s not clear, for example, when Wilkie plays a woman rugby player discussing the beauty of women’s rugby whether she herself is a regular player or just an avid fan. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she has this character down cold, reproducing in her stance and the bearing of her jaw that this is a person to be reckoned with on the field. Only those who perform as a kind of confessional therapy insist on letting you know at all times that the stories you are hearing are true. Wilkie transcended this adolescent stage long ago.

Which is not to say that she’s disappeared entirely. At least half of the six stories are about herself, including a funny “gosh, I’m such a neurotic” opening monologue, in which she admits to never feeling happy or whole, and a touching final piece about her memories of her anal-retentive engineer father and her late, crazy, alcoholic, jazz-piano-playing grandfather. But even these pieces are liberally sprinkled with impersonations of her sharp-tongued mother, uptight father, and sloppy-drunk sky-talking granddad.

When Wilkie first performed Are You Happy? last year, the characters were the weakest elements in what was otherwise a fine and finely written show. Her acting was rough; clearly she was far more comfortable playing herself. Ten months later she’s performing all the characters with equal ease and proving with every laugh she gets that she’s much more than just another autobiographical monologuist.

I hope she’s happy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.