An Inquiry into Human Understanding
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 2, 2006
Tim Ellis is an amusing guy. His new solo comedy show, An Inquiry into Human Understanding: The Meditations, Confessions, Ethics, Metaphysics, and Poetics of Tim Ellis—his first attempt at the form, by the way—is smart, humorous, and engaging, full of wry commentary on a variety of significant subjects such as: Wendy's new Homestyle Chicken Fillet sandwich.
Ellis riffs on reading on the subway (he got hooked on Moby Dick by reading it over another passenger's shoulder). He recounts a dream he had in which he was shopping for a suitcase at T.J. Maxx. He shares some of his earliest writings (from 1979, when he was probably about ten years old), including a brief but exciting story about time travel and another about meeting a famous baseball player.
It's all very much the musings of an intelligent and vaguely disenfranchised Everyman; a guy with enough time on his hands to not only wonder if the reason that the waiter at his local diner can't get his breakfast order correct is because there's some inherent flaw in the English language preventing accurate communication, but also to write about it in a comedy sketch.
Ellis tells us in his press materials that his models include great monologists like Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby (and we can see their influence), but I'd say that in finding the surreal in the extremely ordinary Inquiry more brings to mind the sensibility of Stephen Wright, and in its (only half-put-on) philosophical ambitions it reminds me of the work of Spalding Gray. Where Gray rambled on a theme and jutted off on various tangents, though, Ellis's show is more or less all tangents. It's incisive, humorous stuff. Some of it—like his asides as he proposes to circulate a petition against the aforementioned Wendy's entree—is downright hilarious satire.
Ellis's style is homey and low-key; the entire show plays out with minimal props and effects, with Ellis meandering and rotating around a stool that he occasionally comes to rest upon. His conversational style should work as well on TV or CD as it does in a theatre; either or both of those media would be suitable directions for Ellis to take his work as he hones it in front of a welcoming audience at the PIT.