The Purpose of Matter in the Universe
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
July 15, 2007
Solo performance is hard. You have to singlehandedly maintain your audience's attention, lacking any lazy co-stars to blame for wayward yawns. For that matter, you have to play all the parts and develop unique attributes for each character. And for God's sake, you have to memorize all those lines. Solo performance is often entertaining due to the sheer virtuosity of the actor.
Certainly Joe Hutcheson, whose one-man show The Purpose of Matter in the Universe is playing in the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is a performer of considerable dexterity. And thus, it's with much respect and regret that I report how disappointing Purpose is.
Hutcheson centers this autobiographical tale around his cross-country car trip from his home in California, where all his family and friends live, to Florida, where he plans to settle permanently. However, the move is not an easy one. Along the way, Hutcheson repeatedly suffers panic attacks, as he agonizes over his life, fears his death, and questions his purpose in the universe. In between emotional meltdowns and at pit-stops during the car trip, he's accompanied by a host of colorful characters.
Director DB Levin and Hutcheson successfully devise charismatic voices and mannerisms to distinguish the varying personalities. Embodying his best friend, a brazen lesbian, Hutcheson's walk morphs into a no-nonsense swagger and his voice growls with a tough Southern lilt. When playing his pill-popping stepmother, who joins him for a leg of the journey, Hutcheson lovingly shows her eccentricity without spiraling into caricature. Particularly comical is his reenactment of her absent-minded effort to speed down the highway in the five-gear car while forgetting to shift out of third gear.
A "multi-media event," Purpose uses slideshow projections to add to the atmosphere and to symbolically represent the locations on the journey. Although the photographs are aesthetically very nice, they quite often distracted me from the performer. More fully integrated are the lighting design (by Ellen Rosenberg) and the sound design. When Hutcheson goes to a gay club, colored lights flash frantically about the theater and techno music reverberates off of the walls.
Where Purpose seems to drive off its course is in its actual story. The writing itself is very good, full of pretty descriptions and pleasant metaphors. But Purpose is merely a series of anecdotes, seemingly arranged in the order in which the actual events happened to Hutcheson. There is no overarching desire, no external conflict, no tangible obstacle in the way of his happiness. The only thing connecting the various vignettes are his fears, as manifested in the self- (or marijuana- or cocaine-) induced panic attacks.
The problem is, the character's personal neuroses are neither unique nor worldly. Even though his friends and family make various appearance, there's no context, no background, no event to shed light on his characterization, his fears, his choices—or even the reason for his car trip. (I kept wondering, why are you going to Florida?) The whole journey takes place in a giant, 5-geared vacuum.
And perhaps that's because it's on a stage. Ironically, even though Hutcheson is a versatile actor and the show's technical attributes are undeniably theatrical, Purpose doesn't feel like a play—it feels like a memoir being acted out. Perhaps it's just as hard to write a one-man show as it is to perform it. Hutcheson is clearly a storyteller, with the energy capable of captivating an audience and a pen ready to write lyrical prose. Now all he needs is a real story.