Disguised in the Spotlight: “Real Characters” Live at McNally Jackson

Sometimes when there’s a frequently performed show that’s been going on for awhile – but which you are attending for the first time – there’s a warm and tingling sensation that you’ve stumbled onto a desert island with its own thrilling new customs, or a secret society’s meeting a la the Stonecutters on The Simpsons, or that crew that Ben Franklin hypes in radio commercials.

Such were the good vibrations Wednesday evening at McNally Jackson in Nolita, where writer/comedian Andy Ross (Two jobs? A double threat!) proved a gracious host to five superb storytellers in a recurring series called “Real Characters”. I was genuinely surprised by the charms of each tale, and not merely because I had two plastic cups of wine beforehand (red, and of a higher quality than bottles found at most bookish events). If you’re in the market for a nice Malbec, I believe the wine had one of those names that also could have been its region, like Estrella, or Diaspora.

I even got to indulge one of my weirdest and thus favorite habits shortly before the show started: sitting alone in a crowd of people having multiple disparate conversations and eavesdropping only on non-sequential portions of each. All around me, a bouquet of utterances!

“Friends? He’s got a lot of friends.”
“Bogota is in Columbia, yes.”
“Kind of a big deal.”
“You have to get out of the city right now. It’s what makes sense.”
“Probably gonna graduate.”
“Some is good, some is bad, but all of it is funky.”
“Cheese? Oh, cheers! Yes, right: cheers!”

From there, each of the night’s readers brought a unique spirit to the festivities, beginning with Dawn Fraser‘s endearing tale of watching her brother – a man faced with Down syndrome – play with two young children in their family, and the ways in which she relished seeing both her brother and these children so enjoy one another’s company. Fraser also described her impulse to want to play with people’s earlobes in mid-conversation, which in hindsight I find curiously relatable. Fraser is also the creator and host of Fort Greene’s Barbershop Stories, which is a really good premise for a show that I will totally go to someday! Next, Jane Borden of Vanity Fair and her very own memoir I Totally Meant To Do That continued this brief theme of relating to the youths in telling of her attempts to bond with her nephew. It does not take a logical leap to hear that Borden found that unity in the comfort of making fart noises with one’s hands and armpits.

Later, a room of at least a hundred people collectively fell in love with Daily Show writer Hallie Haglund, who dared relate to us what it is to be a nineteen year old dropout living in Colorado and dating your depressive forty year old co-worker at a low-rent Italian chain restaurant. Haglund’s revelations incited laughter out loud, and painted a tapestry of the man in question, who from her depiction sounds like what Glenn Danzig would be up to these days if karma was real.

The show was rounded out with a double dose of stellar Saturday Night Live folk: writer Mike O’Brien and cast member Kate McKinnon. O’Brien’s story, a lengthy but riveting tale of lazy, hard boiled sleuthing entitled “Buck McCoy: Renegade Cop”, was as hilarious as it was kinda gross and absurd. O’Brien’s slow and nuanced cracking open of a tall boy of Coors Light at the story’s outset acutely set the mood. If nothing else, let this piece direct you to O’Brien’s delicately awkward and earnestly creepy web series 7 Minutes in Heaven, in which he interviews an array of funny and/or pretty people from inside a closet. McKinnon meanwhile damn near stole the show: an utter marvel at character work, she first portrayed the ejaculate-soaked trials and tribulations of a hive’s queen bee living by the axiom “Be careful what you wish for”. She then switched gears (and wigs) to bring to life a scientist coincidentally named Kate McKinnon, who therein delivered a thorough and rigorous report on whether it is possible for a lonely scientist to engage in a mature and mutually beneficial romance with her cat. McKinnon looks like Scarlett Johannson and is funnier than Jake Johannsen. By the time you read this, she will be the most famous person on Earth.

In the name of rigorous criticism, I’m saddened to report that I had a lovely time watching this show, and can find virtually no fault in it. Am I softening in my old age, like the stool of our elders? I’m struggling to think of a disreputable or lame moment all evening. If only someone had stepped on my new sneakers, or one of the evening’s readers had proven to be a secret Nazi who’d gotten this far before spilling the beans of prejudice. In pursuit of total and utter perfection going forward to next month’s edition of Real Characters: perhaps the wine could had been delivered to my seat, coupled with a soft kiss on the cheek? Something to consider for next time.

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