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The Dork Knight

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 18, 2017

Jason O'Connell
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Obsessive behavior is usually treated as pitiable, but why shouldn't what we love—or what we love too much—represent who we are? In his sparkling one-man play for the Abingdon Theatre Company at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, Jason O'Connell explores this idea with both a seriousness and a hilarity that will make you reconsider your own devotions and what they say about you. Its title, The Dork Knight, all but telegraphs what it's about, and projects a negative interpretation that neither O'Connell nor his director, Tony Speciale, try to foster. They celebrate all of the duality of personality—the good and the bad, the shadows and the sun, the Tim Burton and the Joel Schumacher—and, dare I say, could not have (or impart) more fun in doing so.

The subject of O'Connell's fixation, in case you really couldn't guess, is the Caped Crusader himself. Early on in the 85-minute show, O'Connell explains how he's always loved Batman, but only became a diehard after seeing the Burton-directed movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson during his senior year of high school. It fanned the flames of his latent nerdhood, true, and propelled him down the difficult track to becoming a professional actor. But that film and those that followed it also influenced his personal interactions, with family (his maternal grandparents stepped in to assist his mom in raising him after his dad all but disappeared after a divorce), with women, and with the children he does not yet have.

O'Connell's probing eye in this area is The Dork Knight's most scintillating feature. He links the Batman bug to all these experiences in ways that are tender and smart without being gratuitous; you don't feel, as you easily could, that he's molding reality and fantasy to better fit together. For him, they interlock naturally, never better than in his description of the emotional catharsis that overtook him while watching The Dark Knight Rises, and the aftermath that unveils a surprising arc in his own development across the decades. As with all of us, our surface personas only magnify what's going on underneath, and O'Connell constructs his case quietly but absolutely convincingly.

Humor is his chief building block. His spins on the recent Batman v. Superman ("People like to think that they're the same, that it's just two guys in silly pajamas punching each other. No, it's one guy in silly pajamas trying to punch a flying Jesus alien") and Christian Bale's infamous crackly voice (the problem isn't the vocal production, but the character's too-plentiful dialogue) are uproarious, but also evince keen characterological insight. But he can be effortlessly moving, too, whether in describing his (many) failed relationships, the death of someone close to him, or how the wonders of Hamlet began opening up to him while he was peeking in on an adolescent dance class.

The intimate nature of the playing space elicits the maximum of O'Connell's abundant natural charm (at the opening night performance, he wove reactions from the crowd into his performance subtly but delightfully), which Speciale has focused and, one suspects, tamed at least a little through his simple staging augmented by Jerry Marsini's set (little more than a chair and a side table), Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes (modern-Everyman simple), and Zach Blane's lights (knowing but restrained). This is a story and personality, everyone seems to admit, doesn't need much embellishment to shine.

Which isn't to say it's perfect. Despite the importance of the through line of O'Connell's various romances, every woman is drastically unsketched. It doesn't help that he refers to all but one by comic monikers (Wonder Woman, Vicki Vale, and, of course, Poison Ivy), a device that underscores how one-dimensionally he viewed them, yes, but inhibits their ability to function as guideposts along the road to his own development. Even his mother, who is ostensibly crucial, is a barely half-formed presence. O'Connell ensures you don't doubt his progress dealing with all of them, but the journey is a lot harder to see than it should be.

Similarly getting in the way are his impressions of the actors and/or characters from the films he love. They're apparently intended to be the centerpieces of the evening, though they vary wildly in quality (his Jack Nicholson-as-Joker and Arnold Schwarzenegger-as-Mr. Freeze are excellent, his Heath Ledger-as-Joker and Morgan Freeman not so much), but they go on far too long, and eventually become clich├ęs that replace the far more original and interesting content that constitutes the show. The tedious climactic conflict between his alter egos, which plays more as a comedy-acting showcase than a major psychological revelation, you can see coming 10 miles away; the ultimate relationship he reveals between the heroes he loves and the (final?) woman he loves is a breath-stealing stunner.

In other words, O'Connell is at his enviable best when he drops the costumes and let his underlying humanity speak for itself. Luckily, that happens frequently enough to keep The Dork Knight richly involving even during its softer spots. So much so, in fact, that you shouldn't be shocked to feel tears running down your face at certain points. Maybe, as O'Connell says, his "two favorite movies feature men dressed as rodents getting really, really angry at men dressed as clowns." But by digging beneath that surface, O'Connell shows us what his affection for Batman really means, and why all of our own deepest obsessions should be embraced and learned from rather than hidden from the light.

The Dork Knight
Through January 29
Abingdon Theatre Company at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 West 36th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix