“Based on the notion that all of us can claim some talent or another, the spirited one-man show combines multiple characters with lively doses of improvisation for a rousing, albeit brief, bit of merriment.”
Audiences first met talent agent Ida Parker in actor-comedian Skot Hess’ critically lauded show, BJ: The Trail of a Transgender Country Singing Star. A cross between Brini Maxwell and Tootsie, the perpetually perky Ida now returns in a show of her own, Talent. Based on the notion that all of us can claim some talent or another, the spirited one-man show combines multiple characters with lively doses of improvisation for a rousing, albeit brief, bit of merriment.
The show’s gimmick is a clever one. It seems Ida has run into a bit of trouble booking guests for a new variety show. With the clock ticking and her options limited, she decides to mine her audience for potential guests. In between these audience “auditions,” she relates the genesis of her career, and the roots of her belief that everybody has a talent, by introducing various family members and clients. These characters, all played by Hess, include a feisty aunt, a vaudevillian uncle, a singing truck stop waitress, and a blind psychic.
By far, the best moments in the show come from Hess’ interactions with his audience. A terrific improvisational actor, Hess extracts comedic gold from brief conversations with various viewers (those in the front rows, be warned). Whether dealing with hammy scene-stealers or timid mumblers, Hess never falters, keeping the crowd in stitches as he nimbly engages them. As Ida, he conducts interviews with various audience members throughout the show, quizzing them on their abilities. No talent is too small for Ida, who seems genuinely impressed by anyone who can swim, read, or merely dress himself. Hess also interacts as Lady Shouldknow, a visually-impaired fortuneteller whose abilities may have been overestimated by the quixotic Ida. Then there’s Patsy Polaroid, a maraca-playing country singer who’s been asked by Ida to write a theme song for the upcoming variety show. In this endeavor, Patsy interviews audience members and immediately sings a song about them. While they don’t make a whole lotta sense, they’re uproariously funny, especially when she’s forced – as she was on opening night – to come up with a rhyme for “fajita.”
As entertaining as these sections of the show are, the show deteriorates during the many scripted moments. In an effort to depict the origins of Ida’s optimistic philosophies, Hess has crafted a paper-thin plot, complete with flashbacks to Ida’s childhood. While these scenes offer a few scattered chuckles here and there, for the most part, they offer very little in the way of narrative development. Interestingly, Hess is more successful playing women than men (although many of his characters – of both sexes – have a tendency to sound like Edith Bunker). And while Ida is truly a tour de force, Hess seems to have spent significantly less time developing these peripheral characters. A few of them seem like little more than filler; their stories really don’t amount to much and would have benefited from more shaping. Fortunately, Hess returns to improvisation frequently enough to keep things afloat, and when he does, it takes no time at all for the show to regain its stride.
A melodramatic monologue, delivered by a heretofore-unseen character and designed to hammer home the show’s core message, cheapens the ending of this otherwise entertaining show. Throughout, Ida demonstrates with humor and earnestness her belief that we’re all good for something. Talent would be better served to let Ida speak for herself, rather than relying on such a manufactured plot device. Still, clocking in at around an hour, Talent dispenses more than enough laughs per minute to qualify as a success. Hess has created something truly special in the dynamic Ida; hopefully he’ll put her to even better use in the future.
The Duplex Cabaret
61 Christopher Street at 7th Avenue
Fri 8 p.m.; Sat 6 p.m. through July 13