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All the Wrong Reasons:
A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling, and Undying Love

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

John Fugelsang
Photo by Joan Marcus

"I'm not going to claim I've got a proper piece of solo theatre," says John Fugelsang near the beginning of his one-man show, All the Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling, and Undying Love, at New York Theatre Workshop. "The stories here are not brave," he continues, "the stakes are very low, my arc is flimsy at best."

He said it, I didn't.

However, it's refreshing that an author-star in his position at the center of this mostly tiresome, angrily extended stand-up routine can be honest about the work's shortcomings. Or most of them, at any rate. While Fugelsang also claims this is not a Bush-bashing show, he takes more than a few shots at our current President. And though he insists it's also not a Christian-bashing show, its general story follows the pattern of, "Do you really need God when you can find the answers inside yourself?"

On some level, Fugelsang sees himself as the inescapable product of the promise of his Franciscan brother father and nun mother to never create children. And though he takes great pains to establish his parents as artifacts of a bygone world still clinging to beliefs he long ago abandoned, they still emerge as the most interesting and vividly drawn characters in this saga.

The show is set over an angst-riddled Thanksgiving weekend, when Fugelsang's mother tried to convince her son to marry his 11-year girlfriend Charmien for the benefit of his deathly ill father, but it's the glimpses into the past at the foundations of the subtitle's "undying love" that provide the show with what little heart it has. Fugelsang relates their story - which spans 10 years, two continents, and a great deal of faith - in heartfelt detail that reveals him as the romantic he otherwise goes to great lengths to hide.

It's hard to accept his intense initial desire to marry Charmien, given its presentation as a rock-star populated dream wedding as well as his depiction of her as little more than a judgmental Valley Girl. And the calculated force of his reminiscence about appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, during which he made overt (and embarrassing) comic overtures to white nationalist David Duke, suggest he's little more than someone who'll do anything he can for a laugh.

But his parents' considered reactions to that stunt, as well as their desperation for him to officially commit to Charmien even as they face blistering challenges to their own union, give them a more reasoned depth than Fugelsang ever permits himself to show. And their eventual, divine fate is so unbelievable, it could only be true.

The resolutely earthbound Fugelsang just can't compete. With her spare staging, director Pam MacKinnon has created an open expanse for Fugelsang's blustering creativity and wiry physicality to fill, but she's done little to help him discover - or portray - himself onstage. While that would sound the death knell for most shows, Fugelsang's parents are so warmly represented that you tend to forgive, even appreciate, him for making himself invisible.

At least most of the time. Only in the last 20 minutes or so, when Fugelsang relates a harrowing encounter with security forces in a Florida airport, does he allow himself to take center stage and own it outright. (It's not giving away too much to say that this is where the "drug smuggling" comes into play.) Forced to admit his own imperfections and take responsibility for his own choices, he sheds his blinding comic veneer long enough to prove there's actually a human being living inside.

Once he's that genuinely real, anything goes, and it's hard not to feel for the frightened boy he becomes. As the scene plays out, it's clear that beyond being highly comic it's also the culmination of themes you believed the rest of the show would probably just let dangle unanswered. You might even find yourself wondering if All the Wrong Reasons can really have as "flimsy" an arc as its creator claimed, but it doesn't take long to realize that Fugelsang's mother and father long ago answered that question for you.

All the Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling, and Undying Love
Through May 6
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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