Freak Out Under the Apple Tree
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
June 3, 2005
The world underwhelms Tom X. Chao, the downtown comedian giving his second festival installment at the Brick with Freak Out Under the Apple Tree, after his brilliant demon-worship orientation at last year’s Hell Festival, How To Invoke Pan. Chao is a party pooper of the first order, and his humor stands sentinel on the wall of dispassionate observation. Freak Out Under the Apple Tree brings together the cream of his sketch-writing crop, and it is scheduled to deadpan its way through the Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg Fringe Festivals. But first stop is the Brick Theatre in Williamsburg, where his vigilant crabbiness is warning against such threats as gasbag tourists who spout on about the beauty of San Francisco, actors who believe improv is the ultimate artistic product, and smug partisans who have settled on the Big Apple side of the endless New York vs. Los Angeles debate.
Chao presents five sketches, and enlists the quirky talents of straight lady Erin A. Leahy in most of them. The jewel of the night is certainly the second sketch, “A Walk in San Francisco”, in which Chao narrates a re-enactment of a touristy date he had while a resident in that city. Leahy admirably sells the ridiculous zeal of the woman, Leslie, as she reverently calls out the proper name of each San Franciscan landmark, like Adam naming the creatures of Earth as they are divinely formed out of clay before his eyes. Chao, as narrator, maintains a startlingly poetic detachment from the outing until he can no longer stand his walking brochure of a companion. Allowing himself as much passion as he can muster, he utters an oath at the city and asks what San Francisco knows about anything except taking a backseat to L.A.
Chao is surgically precise at tapping into what some might called a jaded vein of humor, but what his fans might more positively label as defiance of society’s menacing pressure to feel joy. Don’t be fooled by all the energy flying out of it, his sketches suggest, the happy brain is not firing on all cylinders. As Leahy’s creepy tourist demonstrates, the ghastly underbelly of positivity is Orwell’s “groupthink.” When a less-than-rapturous evaluation of the San Franciscan landscape is shocking enough to elicit guffaws from people who live 3000 miles from it, then perhaps it spotlights an opinion that is becoming a tad too ingrained for the comfort of many.
"Freak Out Under The Apple Tree" is in fact the name of an improv carried out in the third sketch by Tuesday, a fame-craving actress played with zany verve by Leahy. The title is her literal description of the improv scenario that winds up taking her down to the floor on her back, writhing and whimpering as Chao observes stone-faced. The dynamic here, a sort of Tigger vs. Eeyore portrayal of the world, is explored with irreverence and wit throughout the show, and plays to the strengths in Chao’s point of view. He is a talent worth following, a comedian whose unique delivery sharply jabs the ridiculous and mundane, and remains watchful of the rest—eyeing his targets.