Stand up comic Jeff Garlin headlines one-man show at Steppenwolf

12/12/2012 10:00 PM

Phil Morehart
Contributing Reporter

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Jeff Garlin performs stand-up in his new show Closer Than I Appear at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Photo courtesy Michael Brosilow

“Why am I at Steppenwolf?!”

Jeff Garlin laughed as he asked this question both to the audience and to himself at the opening night of his new one-man show, Closer Than I Appear, which runs through Dec. 16 at the venerable Lincoln Park playhouse’s Upstairs Theatre. It’s an apt question.

Why is one of Chicago’s shining theatrical lights; the home of August: Osage County; incubator of talent like John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, John Mahoney and Joan Allen (among many others) hosting what is at face value a simple stand-up comedy show? Especially one that is mostly improvised?

Garlin’s background certainly plays into the decision.

The Chicago-born actor, writer, producer, director and stand-up comic has an amazing pedigree: Second City alum; co-star/Executive Producer of hit HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm; voice work in Pixar animated blockbusters WALL-E, Toy Story 3, and Cars 2; feature film and television director; book author. The list goes on.

The appeal is obvious. Garlin is a big name star that will put butts in seats. And it’s worked before. This isn’t Garlin’s first stint at Steppenwolf. His solo show, No Sugar Tonight, enjoyed a sold-out run at the theater in 2011. His work is a perfect fit for Steppenwolf, though. Closer Than I Appear transcends mere comedy to become a truly personal experience for both performance and audience.

As its title suggests, Closer Than I Appear is an open door; a chance for audiences to get up close and personal with Garlin, who in turn uses the proximity as an opportunity to open himself up to them. Instead of simply being a stand-up comic delivering canned bits to a captive audience, Garlin comes off as your cool uncle or hilarious college roommate — the one who swoops in out of the blue with awesome stories, dirty jokes and handfuls of gifts (literally — Garlin gives out swaggy goods throughout the show).

The improvisation allows Garlin to achieve this synergy with the audience. The comedian is upfront at the beginning of the show that he’s winging it. Some of the material is prepped in advance, of course, but they serve as mere jumping off points for Garlin to talk about his wife and kids, life in Hollywood, struggles with his weight, politics, growing up in Chicago and whatever ridiculous tangent catches his fancy. Closer Than I Appear is one long tangent, in fact, held together by Garlin’s charisma. The tangents often sink without laugher, but Garlin’s embrace of such awkward moments makes him all the more endearing. He’s quick to laugh at himself, and at others, too.

Garlin’s interactions with the audience are the show’s strength. He is quick to grab folks and bring them onstage to chat with him and to harangue those sitting within close proximity. Couples’ sex lives are dived into. Friendships are questioned and explored. Fashion choices are ridiculed.

The ribbing can be fierce, but it is never mean. Ever. Instead, Garlin uses the observations to reveal things about his own life and personality. We see his humanity and humility. The quid pro quo between performer and viewer morphs Closer Than I Appear into a fascinating form of therapy where healing comes through laughter.

Highly recommended.

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