‘Randy Writes a Novel’ (Photo: Chris McDonald)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Randy is a puppet, one of those spongy, felt-covered, egg-headed, noseless guys with googly, stuck-on eyes and rod-operated arms—you know, like the Muppets or the dramatis personae of Avenue Q. An Australian with purple skin, he’s the sole performer in a show that’s been touring the world—including, he tells us, a recent gig in Texas—and is now making his New York debut at the Clurman Theatre.
His show, Randy Writes a Novel, is essentially an hour and 20-minute standup routine except that Randy remains seated the whole time. Ensconced behind a desk like a late-night TV comedy host, and speaking in his native Down Under accent, he greets the audience like an old friend, telling it to feel free to shout “Whoo!,” take photos, and even use cellphones.
In what follows, Randy will not only tell us what’s on his mind but also engage with several audience members. A good part of the show, which has been adapted for American audiences, is thus improvisational. Randy rarely misses a beat when it comes to turning a conversational clue into a comic cue.
The night I went, a fellow he chatted with was visiting from Canada with his wife, whose name is America. Naturally, that led to a wisecrack or two. Surprisingly, though, Randy chose not to respond to the guy’s being from Toronto on the very day some maniac in a van had plowed down 25 people there. Either Randy hadn’t heard about it or he simply decided to avoid the subject.
Which isn’t to say that Randy’s profanity-littered narrative is all sunshine and light. Much of it is rather dark, and as it warms up it often shifts oddly between broad, comic expression and existential angst. Randy does have a specific goal in mind, however. As his show’s publicity declares, Randy “will read excerpts from his unpublished novel whilst getting distracted by his own hate-filled ramblings.”
Before he gets to his reading, he regales us with material about having a hangover on a long flight, about how the airlines put Imodium in your food to avoid long lines at the toilets, and so on. The scatological references are extensive enough to suggest Randy should have a roll of toilet paper near his mouth.
Randy bounces from topic to topic, like self-service checkout scanners, and hoarders, before struggling with his puppet hand to turn the page of the novel he’s written—it’s called Walking to Skye—so he can share it with us.
And therein lies the core of the show: Randy’s inability to overcome his procrastination and actually read from his novel. Instead, he keeps turning from it to walk, not to Skye, but through a trove of anecdotes, comments, and thoughts.
These cover Hemingway, masturbation, yoga, faith, George Michael, Harper Lee, the purpose of art, the problem of artistic legacy, a near-death experience, environmental issues, vegetarianism and veganism, Buddhism, and social media. Finally, he describes a horrific but deliciously told experience he had when buying a bookcase on Craig’s List (Gumtree in Australia).
Randy at one point remarks self-deprecatingly about our having come to see a comedy show but getting a TED talk instead. Which might not be so bad if that TED talk were more enlightening than this play is funny.
There are laughs, of course, some of them loud, but not as many as the show’s context would seem to demand. The man behind Randy, Heath McIvor, whose name I found on the Internet since it’s not in the program, is a masterful puppeteer, making Randy seem quite human, with all sorts of facial expressions, physical behavior, and amusing vocal pyrotechnics.
However, while Randy captures and holds your attention throughout, you always feel he’s on the brink of saying something hilarious only for the feeling to dissipate into a smile or mild chuckle as his narrative shifts in a new direction.
If McIvor, talented as he is, were to deliver the same material without Randy as his middleman, I doubt his show would have been touring the world these past few years. Judging by the reaction when I went, there’s definitely an audience for this popeyed, potty-mouthed, purple puppet’s ponderings. But there’d be an even bigger one were he funnier and less inclined toward navel-gazing (if he had one).
Randy Writes a Novel
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 10
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).