Paul Dooley: Upright and Personal
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Sacred Fools Second Stage
Through June 25
The solo show, Paul Dooley: Upright and Personal, now playing at the Fringe, arrives like a gift from the muses. Which daughters of Memory preside over this treasured comic actor? Probably Thalia the festive. But Thalia must have had assistance from her younger sister, dancing Erato, and then delayed approval from Clio, bringer of fame.
Dooley became widely known at the age of 49 for his performance in Robert Altman’s A Wedding, and later in Breaking Away, the 1979 film in which he played the father of the principal character, a teen cyclist.
In the simple staging of the show, there are two chairs. One of the chairs provides a comic seat for Dooley’s memoir, the other serious — and there is a place to stand between them, “But not for long!” (Dooley is in his late 80s.) That is the perfect stage-geography for the confessions of a comedian.
His lonely West Virginia childhood was relieved by listening to the radio comedians he loved, especially Jack Benny. And here Dooley plays a recording that gets its first laugh by a long silence, the famous Benny timing of a pause. But when Dooley discovered the great silent-movie comedians, above all Buster Keaton, his first love was replaced by what must have been a crazed obsession. We see the result in a very good silent film chase, made when Dooley was 19, a clip which later won him a day’s work with Buster Keaton himself.
There is a long list of distinguished funny-people in Dooley’s story, including his friend Don Knotts, and the members of the Second City NY troupe, Alan Arkin, Paul Sands, Barbara Harris and Andrew Duncan (with whom he made perhaps a thousand rapid-patter radio commercials). And these are from his salad days.
Dooley certainly understands how to make you climb the ladder of comedy, and when you get near the top, shake it for the boffo. But he’s known and loved for tearful laughter, and that’s why the two chairs onstage are important.
The Muses were associated with springs in the underworld, with the waters of memory and the waters of forgetfulness. When the sisters appeared to the poet Hesiod, they said, “We know both how to tell the truth and how to lie.” Or both at once: the sorrowful personal story, and the sometimes comic relief of art.
Sacred Fools Theater Second Stage, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, http://hff16.org/3546 ; through June 25. Running time: one hour 30 minutes without intermission.