Don Reed’s popular one-man show East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player ran at the Marsh and the Marsh Berkeley for two and a half years, chronicling his childhood in 1970s Oakland between his Jehovah’s Witness missionary stepfather and his fun-loving dad, who happened to be a pimp. Reed has followed it up with the next chapter in his hilarious autobiography: The Kipling Hotel: True Misadventures of the Electric Pink ’80s. Here we move on to his college years working at a run-down retirement hotel in Los Angeles.
There isn’t so much a dramatic arc in the show; it’s just generally about Reed’s life in the 1980s: his couch-surfing college life, parties, hookups, odd jobs and odder job interviews. But the way he tells the story is hilarious—his writing is very funny, but his performance is tremendous. Reed is a marvelously dynamic performer, with a rubbery, expressive face and an impressive knack for sound effects. In the course of the show he embodies a seemingly endless parade of hilarious characters: his very animated, nagging grandma; his high-strung, chain-smoking boss Judy; his twitchy cokehead friend T, whose mouth is always churning like a squirrel’s; Lil, the always insightful developmentally disabled girl who’s quick to call Don on his bullshit; George, the friendly retiree who’s always disappointed to wake up and find himself still alive; Kenny, the head cook who’d turn anything you say into a cheesy innuendo.
As with most shows at the Marsh, the stage set is minimal: just a table for two and a large color photograph of the Kipling Hotel sign. Reed wears a simple waiter’s uniform of a red vest and white shirt. He uses a lot of period music: Prince, the Go-Go’s, David Bowie, Simply Red.
Reed directs himself in the show, and there are still a few kinks to be worked out in it structurally—most notably the sense that it really is a series of interlinked anecdotes more than a coherent story.
A few bits assume familiarity with Reed’s previous play East 14th, such as the brief portrayals of his brothers and a running gag about his tendency to blink profusely when he’s nervous, but you quickly get the picture anyway. Sometimes the sequence of events is confusing: Talk about a restaurant job back home in Oakland segues so immediately into talking about another restaurant job that it takes a long time to realize that the second job isn’t an Oakland flashback but something he’s doing concurrently with his work at the Kipling Hotel. It’s an important distinction, because the Kipling only pays him in room and board, and by then you’re really wondering what he does for money.
A segment at the end where he recaps a sort of greatest-hits gallery of the characters who’ve appeared in the show feels gratuitous and self-indulgent, but at the same time it’s the sort of thing you’d find during the credits of a particularly cheesy ’80s comedy flick, so it’s vaguely appropriate thematically.
If it is a show patched together of bits and pieces, those bits and pieces are fantastically entertaining. A running gag about “dancing white to fit in” is hysterical, and our introduction to the Kipling is,“I was immediately met with the scent of urine and Log Cabin syrup.” There are also some beautifully poignant moments—even a seemingly out-of-nowhere Holocaust story. Reed’s such a polished performer that I get the sense that he’ll work out the rough patches over time—and if his previous show is any indication, he’ll have plenty of time to do that.
It then plays January 7 through December 16, 2012 at the Marsh Berkeley, Berkeley.
Show #103 of 2011, attended October 23.