UNDERSTANDING A STAR
nytheatre.com review by Eric Winick
There’s something oddly touching about an actor who decides to write and
perform a show about his mother. After all, what better fodder for
exploring one’s warped childhood? Hence, Understanding A Star, in
which Dan Michael McDermott pays homage to his late mother, while other
characters—namely McDermott’s father, aunt, and grandmother—bicker,
quarrel, and comment on his observations. Subtitled "A Fantastic Account
of the Facts," Understanding is Mr. McDermott’s Bronx Tale, an
Irish-Norwegian-German ode to the hard-working, stubborn people of North
Dakota, where people say things like "Doncha know" and dance the
August 15, 2002
An attempt to determine why his mother, and not the young McDermott, was always considered the "star" of the family, Understanding falls squarely into that most indulgent of theatrical genres, the solo-show-as-therapy. There’s no real story here, nor is the show structured as a series of monologues. Instead, McDermott spends most of his time at a sketch pad, methodically listing his mother’s "faults," which range from the inane (too short, couldn’t cook) to the absurd (thinning hair, didn’t smoke), to the utterly ridiculous (no sense of smell, ugly glasses).
Bounding merrily about the stage, the author recounts his tale in a broad, vivacious style more appropriate to children's storytelling than to a tale of familial woe. In-jokes about Midwesterners and Lutherans abound, delivered by McDermott as if they are nothing short of hilarious. There’s clearly a great deal of pain being exorcised here, and though McDermott and director Yvonne Delet make each character’s impact on the author abundantly clear, McDermott’s position in the Big Picture is never clear. It’s nice that his parents accepted McDermott’s idiosyncrasies, but because these are never fully explained, the stakes remain disappointingly low throughout —such that when the author finally comes to terms with his mother’s "faults," the moment has little to no impact. Had he chosen to skew the material a bit more towards his own faults, the realization—and this show—might have been a lot more powerful, doncha know.