By Claire McCurdy
Go see this show! You will laugh till you cry. You will fish through the family photos for your own crazy dad and you just might find him. It’s called catharsis and it works.
Katharine Heller is one extraordinarily funny lady. She acts with her whole body, face bland and dead pan and charming in a kind of Buster Keaton way But she displays a rapier wit and incredible knife-edge comic timing. And she kills us—yes, she kills us—and it all works. The bursts of laughter start coming immediately and never really die down As the material becomes darker, her performance induces belly laughs. We have been touched and we are helpless to stop ourselves from laughing.
Entering the stage area, on a slope down to a pit featuring blob-formed multi-colored plastic chairs reminiscent of high school , it’s like browsing through the 82nd Street subway station adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History—vaguely prehistoric creatures loom out of the rough concrete walls as we proceed down towards the stage, and towards the 50’s- 70’s with these chairs. Nice image since we are about to travel back through time and possibly to watch the actress explore her own psyche.
As we enter we hear mellow music, to my 70’s ear resembling early Beach Boys. The audience spans generations, with a few gray-haired ponytail guys and of course, me. The place is small but exuberant and packed out. There is a picture blown up on screen of the tiny Katharine peering into a microscope providing the central image for the whole show.
As the lights come up and we see Katharine, clad in a white lab coat, frantically writing: “I’M VERY SEXY IN MY WHITE LAB COAT!” she scrubs it off just as we manage to read it. The screen image of the child Katharine behind her and these words in front set the stage for the whole show—early innocence and pathos, and current wry, witty bright charming sensuality.
Katharine explains to us that she (child of scientists) was writing EQUATIONS. She is not a SCIENTIST but is proving a THEORY. And is about to use the SCIENTIFIC METHOD to do so. Her HYPOTHESIS: “MY DAD’S CRAZIER THAN YOUR DAD.” And she’s going to ask audience members to come up with their own crazy dad stories, for comparison purposes. She cautions us that she isn’t calling for jail-time dads—nobody who stuck up a liquor store– just crazy dads. (I wonder, petulantly, why not? I’d welcome a Pulp Fiction kind of Dad story). But it’s Katharine’s show. . Ready for prime time, only.
Now we are underway. We get a fast forward back through Katharine’s childhood, marked by intense folksy and folky parental stuff—dulcimers in virtually all the family photos. So far the CRAZY DAD score isn’t so bad.
And then she gets us right between the eyes. She details her father’s behavior towards his first wife. Abetted by Wife #2, he places a dead rat, road-kill, tire marks still visible, within the pull out bed at the family summer camp where his wife or one of the kids is sure to find it. Now the CRAZY DAD motif is rockin’.
Next, Dad isn’t just a road kill toting menace—he is ABSENT. He vanishes on more than one occasion when he is supposed to have picked up his kids. His response when they accuse him of deserting them: “The people keep-a coming but the train done gone.”
Then Dad vanishes from her life completely, with no contact at all, for many years.
This is the point where Katharine’s comedic ability is amazingly balanced with her painful material. We laugh and laugh when we just might cry.
Meanwhile, the vanished Dad, Dr. Heller, is still crazy after all these years but unforgivably; he is extremely successful at it. The third marriage appears to be working. He calls his third wife, also Dr. Heller, “Cinderella”; she calls him “Cinderfella. “ With his third wife Drs. Heller and Heller have written 20 hit books on carbs-killers and diets. They live in DisneyWorld and wear identical DisneyWorld sweat-suits.
We view a video of the carbohydrate killer king and queen the Drs. Heller, on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, in their identical DisneyWorld sweatsuits. Rosie lampoons them mercilessly to their faces—but neither they nor the wildly cheering and clapping TV audience appears to notice. Well, this is an occasion when we don’t need Cliff Notes– I believe I doubled over with appalled mirth.
Katharine explains that she wonders whether she is somehow responsible for Dad’s absence. She believes that if she just tries really really hard—if she displays her success as an actress and standup/improv artist, by sending Dada a ticket to her current show (“Naked in a Fish Bowl”), he will come to the show, be overwhelmed, and they will be reconciled. She sends the ticket, he comes. They do talk. But there is no real resolution.
Rather than push it farther, and strike more notes both of keen comedy and pathos, it’s time to talk to the actress and playwright. Katharine Heller began her improv career by creating a group, still in existence, at Macalester College in Michigan.
Katharine says that although she has done it all- –film, plays, voiceovers, singing—improv is really her favorite thing. The show is entirely hers, under her control, she gets immediate audience feedback. It’s where her heart is.
In addition to the current show Crazy Dad…Katharine originated and performed the role of Sara in the 2007 New York Fringe Festival production of Naked in a Fishbowl (Fringe Award: Outstanding Ensemble). in which she is currently starring, playing to wild acclaim at the SoHo Playhouse. Heller and three other girls put together an improvisational film/sitcom. Although the show is constantly changing, there is always a version running on the Internet. Episodes can be seen online at www.nakedinafishbowl.com.
And what about Dad? Well, yes, she says, he may technically be crazy but he is a successful diet book guru who lives in his own little world—DisneyWorld . In England he might only be called “eccentric!”
Remaining performances of My Dad’s Crazier Than Your Dad are scheduled at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, August 25, and 9 p.m., Friday, August 27, at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Place.
For more information, go to www.mydadscrazier.com