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Balancing Act

July 12, 2009

Oakland native’s one-man show never totally finds its footing.

There's something to be said for living life by the principle of balance. As a Libran, I'm a strong proponent of equilibrium. Whenever things get a little off-kilter, I tend to readjust by shifting my weight onto the other foot.

The stand-up comedian and actor Don Reed and I don't share a star sign (he's a Sagittarian), but he's obviously a Libran at heart. For the concluding sermon of East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player, Reed's endearing if preachy autobiographical solo show about growing up in Oakland in the 1970s is centered on advocating the Middle Way. If only temperance made for good comedy.

Set at opposite ends of East 14th Street in Oakland (now International Boulevard), the show apparently seeks to tell a dramatic story not of balance but of polar opposition. The African-American comedian and Bill Cosby protégé explains what it was like to go from living with his disciplinarian mother and her Jehovah's Witness second husband to moving in, aged 15, with his dad, who at the time happened to be a professional pimp. To do this, Reed reinvents characters from his adolescent years through lithe physicality — here, he pulls a funny face; there, he does a silly dance.

Critics and theatergoers on both coasts have responded positively to East 14th, which appears at the Marsh following last summer's run Off-Broadway. The audience laughed so hard the night I experienced the show that I left the theater with a mild case of rock concert tinnitus. The New York Times called Reed's effort "well-paced" and "lightly amusing." The New Yorker declared, "It's hard to imagine that the awkward kid who came up through such crude circumstances could be the confident man who wrote, directed, and stars in this little play."

It's easy to understand why people are so smitten with Reed's coming-of-age tale. The performer is good-looking and charismatic. Striding out in black slacks, polished black shoes, and a white button-down shirt casually worn with open neck and rolled-up sleeves, he builds an immediate rapport with his audience that never lets up over the ensuing couple of hours. The performer is a fleet mover and a confident wordsmith. The show's laughs come easily — it's amazing how much traction a comedian can get out of performing a comic dance routine — and Reed makes the most of the many opportunities he gives himself to strut his stuff.

Some of East 14th's one-liners are slickly delivered and funny. Among the play's most lickety-split lines are the decoding of the acronym "PIMP" as "Put It in My Pocket," and the description of one of his father's big-bottomed hookers, Geneva, as "Geneva and her convention." Meanwhile, Reed's intermittent descriptions of his father's flashy dress sense (defined by loud suits, capes, and a collection of hats he wore cocked over one eye) contrast vividly with his own innocence and gullibility. The teenage Reed was slow on the uptake when it came to understanding his dad's profession: "I didn't know it — I just thought he was really into hats."

Despite the geniality of Reed's performance, East 14th fails in two ways. For starters, the production is dimwittedly didactic. Characters are reduced to one physical gambit. The saucer-eyed scowl Reed adopts when embodying the fish-faced Oakland pimp nicknamed "Troutmouth" is as arresting as it is hilarious when we first meet the guy. But Reed repeats the ploy so many times that it becomes predictable. The same can be said of the constant blinking he adopts when playing his younger self. As soon as the character appears, we understand that he has trouble controlling his face. So is it really necessary for Reed to bat his lashes throughout? Solo theater artists who play many parts in a single show often feel a need to create "identifiers" for their characters to help audiences keep track of the action. But the good ones take a more subtle approach and modify their behaviors once the audience gets the hang of what's going on.

Equally repetitive is Reed's desire to bludgeon us with the same jokes over and over. Perhaps the most tedious of many overplayed lines is the one about Jehovah's Witnesses being "the religion where you knock on people's fucking doors at 7 a.m." The first couple of times Reed tells the joke, we are drawn in. The image of his devout stepfather forcing his young stepson to run around the neighborhood at the crack of dawn preaching the gospel is sad and funny. But by the third telling, it gets old.

The other way in which East 14th falls flat is through its complete abandonment of dramatic contrast in the final segment of the show in favor of bland sentimentality. Following a long-winded description of his father's funeral, Reed launches into a mawkish epilogue in which he explains how the people from his past have made him the fabulous success he is today. Then he finishes by spelling out the message of the show, namely that happiness is the product of cool-headed temperance, not of life lived as an extreme sport. "East 14th is not just a street," Reed concludes, just in case we hadn't heard his sermon loud and clear during the preceding two hours, "but a path toward my self-discovery."

"In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth," rock icon Patti Smith once said. Neither fully embracing abandon nor partnering balance with stealth, East 14th is still a bit of mild-mannered fun. But the production ultimately fails to engage with the single most interesting question that hangs over Reed's life thus far: What is the nature and meaning of the equilibrium he now feels and its relationship to polar extremes?



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