NEW YORK—Actor David Deblinger is a creature of showbiz. Like Joan Rivers, he’s very intense. Showbiz creatures crave the spotlight like hardcore alcoholics—they must act. They must sing snatches of songs, they must use accents, they must gesticulate wildly, they must chew the scenery—they must always be “on.” I generally loathe them.
For the first half of “Lucky Penny,” written and performed by Deblinger (directed by Ben Snyder and with music and vocals by Fred Johnson), what immediately came to mind was Woody Allen’s monologue in “Annie Hall,” where an agent demonstrates to Allen’s stand-up comedian character, Alvy Singer, how to be hilarious, and Alvy’s thinking, “Sheesh, this guy’s pathetic; look at him mincing around. Boy he thinks he’s real cute—you want to throw up.” Same deal here. That said … this review ends well. Keep reading.
For 30 minutes, I cringed and flinched away from the one-man emotional conflagration scorching the small, black box Stella Adler theater, but eventually managed to take in the fact that the rest of the audience was actually digging it. I was in the minority. It’s all subjective after all—one man’s ecstatic scenery-chewing is another man’s “just shoot me now.”
You need to understand my point of view here. After 20 years as a professional New York actor, I, like “The Sixth Sense” kid who saw dead people, see bad acting everywhere. It’s excruciating. My former love of theater has decidedly morphed into a love/hate relationship over the years.
But the audience obviously felt it was all very breathtakingly intense, and so I began to watch through one squinted eye. The man was definitely working hard! He was sweating. He was tremendously teary-eyed. A lot.
And so I let down my guard a little. And when, at the end, I rose with the crowd for a standing ovation, I didn’t feel disingenuous. Magical things go on in live theater.
What Goes On
“Lucky Penny” is autobiographical: It’s the story of Deblinger and his relationship with his mother, his brother, the love of his life, his newborn son, and, most importantly, his bedridden father’s march towards death and his father’s relationship with Deblinger’s grandfather.
His father was a frustrated actor, sounds like. “He did so many characters.” There are lines like, “My father played a German child molester. I played the child.” He plays both for us. (This was still the time of cringing.)
Then he’s himself as a kid, shooting a lady on the golf course accidentally on purpose with a pellet gun, and later lying to the cops.
There’s a scene about a confrontation in a restaurant in “Hate” Ashbury with a confrontational waitress and Mexican busboys doubling as bouncers; out comes the Mexican accent, and there ensues much hamming.
“My mother never talks to me about sex,” he relates. “She says, ‘Your father, he still wants to hold me at night. It’s very good.'”
Imagine all this mishigas in a Mel Brooks accent, by a guy who slightly resembles a younger version of Mel, and you get the idea.
What Deblinger’s very good at is communicating an extended, nonverbal string of thoughts that tell an entire story by way of facial expressions, much like Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own,” when he hilariously wants to throttle a player for making an egregious error, but slowly restrains himself, segueing from rage to humor in about 15 seconds.
Death, Dying, and Human Suffering—but Kinda Funny
Deblinger talks about his friend Phil. It’s immediately apparent he’s talking about the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom Deblinger has acted. Soon Deblinger’s standing next to Meryl Streep and John C. Reilly at Phil’s funeral, making a star-struck fool of himself. And in case you hadn’t picked up on the fact that this was Philip Seymour Hoffman, Deblinger projects a giant photo of him and Phil on the big screen, located on the back wall of the theater.
He speaks of his grandfather, a Staten Island longshoreman, who, after suffering a severe blow to the head on the job, became incapacitated and spent the rest of his days in one of those nightmarish, 1940s institutional wards for the insane, sitting in a corner, scratching himself bloody.
In Deblinger’s telling, his dad as a little boy is dragged there by his grandmother for a visit. Amid what sounds like a Hieronymus Bosch type setting, Deblinger’s grandfather recognizes his son, staggers across the room, locates a penny, staggers back, and holds it out to his son with a beseeching look; it was all that he had to offer. And the little boy, frightened, didn’t take the lucky penny. Which haunted Deblinger’s dad with devastating sadness to the end of his days. Remember the title of this play? This is powerful.
Throughout the proceedings, there are musical interludes performed by Fred Johnson, sitting in the stage left corner. Johnson provides mood enhancement, sings songs, plays harp and djembe, and makes baby-crying sound effects and the like.
His is an ever-so-slightly unctuous Broadway voice, mildly overwrought, and when such a voice sings Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” it comes off a little like Bill Murray’s SNL character Nick the Lounge Singer and his rendition of, “Star Warrrs … nothing but Star Warrrrsss ….”
It’s during the story of how Deblinger lost the love of his life, and in the depths of his misery, heard a dog crying in an alley and merged with that sense of utter alone-ness, that you look at this man standing alone on stage, eyes brimming with genuine tears, and appreciate the courage it takes to relate such intimate details of one’s life.
Here’s a man who relives his greatest-hit heartbreaks every night, for other people. Of course, acting is a form of therapy, but still—does that not take courage? Is that not a noble thing?
I am reminded of another Dylan lyric, “I heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley.” That’s this show exactly: The black box is the alley (could have used some graffiti/trash cans, and maybe a red nose), and the show is about clowning and paying tribute, mainly, to life’s sadnesses.
What does this pouring out of emotional truth do for us? Well it occurs to me, my own dad lies in hospice as we speak, in pretty much the same condition Deblinger’s dad had been in, and I contrast my quiet, ultra-stoic, African-American football/military dad to Deblinger’s (from the sound of it) Larry David-esque, Jewish, highly vocal, boasting, flirting, kvetching dad.
I listen with interest to the intensity they have, and their heated, Borscht Belt–inflected proclamations of love for each other. I admire their lack of emotional constraint. I’d like to take a page from Deblinger’s book, but it would only make me and my dad excruciatingly uncomfortable.
But that’s the magic of theater. It’ll get you thinking about your life in unforeseen ways. It’ll give you a gift. Deblinger’s last words are, “Last year I lost my father, and I became one. And now I know how much my father loved me.”
And so I left the theater thinking I should do better. I should go hug my dad. I should tell him it’s okay to go. Like Deblinger did.
Thank you for talking about your dad, Dave Deblinger. You did his death and dying right. You honor your father well, with this play you wrote. You cried in the alley and woke some of us up.
Funny, my dad, a painter and a Dylan lover, did a watercolor depiction of that very same alley-clown lyric. It’s haunted me my whole life.