Los Angeles

Jan Munroe

Burbage Theatre

Dying dads invariably push witnessing children off psychic cliffs: into a hotbed of treacherous narrative material. The desire to inflate a father to mythic proportions, and to kill him again in the retelling of the story that terminated his life, might be considered a natural, or historically intuitive, (oedipal) urge.

Writer/performer Jan Munroe addressed the death of his father under the title Nothing Human Disgusts Me, 1992, and managed to keep this gargantuan project small: the tour includes his extended southern family (a picaresque group) and his once brilliant, now schizophrenic junk-collecting mother, who speaks nine languages at the same time, and who for Halloween dyed her hair green, tied herself to a tree, and barked at trick-or-treaters.

With the exception of a stool that Munroe occasionally sat on, and two metal folding chairs that he’d touch, address, and gesture at, the stage was bare. In 66 streamlined minutes, Munroe told the story of how a jazz musician/airline-ticket-seller, named Carlos met Munroe’s father, Richard, and became his lover for the next 35 years. Later, due to his mother’s deteriorating mental health, Munroe and his brother moved in with the two men; he spent the rest of his life trying to answer the question, What is it like growing up with a gay father? Jump to 1991—Munroe visiting his father (who had sustained horrible injuries from a bicycle accident that would eventually kill him) in hospitals in Nova Scotia and Georgia .

The story shifts remarkably from the tender to the sad to the completely comic. Munroe has an exquisite deadpan sensibility. He rarely smiles, and when he does it’s discreet and dry. Munroe’s voice roamed the earth, going from a Latino accent to North Florida twang, to hard-core Alabama-drawl, to high-pitched, lisping Prague-born mom, to his own deep radio-announcer voice. The rendering of each character is thorough and inventive, and there isn’t a single turn in the story that doesn’t include an exact scrap of vital information. He explains what the nurse meant by “Your father has just gone into Cheyne-Stokes” (the rapid shallow-breathing pattern just before death); how most patients die at the magical hour between 5:00 and 6:00 A.M.; how the cat would not go near his father all his life, but the minute he died, jumped up on his bed and would not budge.

Told articulately in microdetailed thumbnail sketches, the piece was a little like a well-organized curbside spiel, like a story recounted among friends, supported by a metalanguage of physical gestures. Munroe articulated the eerie way a doctor, with an upturned palm and jittery finger, escorted him in to see his father; the way grieving widowed Carlos (a recent nonsmoker) asked if Jan would please blow the smoke from his cigarettes—in his direction.

And then there’s the world of crying. The weeping audience. Not enough can be said for a big salty spill from the little tear ducts. It’s what we all want—to feel something hard, deep-down, to somehow fall, to lose it. Munroe, who has been performing for twenty years, is in the same league as top performance-monologuists Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, and Ron Vawter. During the memorial service Munroe’s aunt requested that he read “some sort of nonsense” from the Bible, but he reminded himself to “just make it work,” like any blathering script. Munroe’s own voice broke during a line from the opaque biblical verse, about the virtues of charity, and no longer being a child. The extreme oddity of the words created a harrowing moment. Crying, and watching crying, when it’s really hot, can burn a hole right through artifice, into genuine pain-land or reality theater.

Benjamin Weissman