Tom X. Chao's two person show Can't Get Started opens with a lone woman sitting on stage, speaking in melancholy tones about her unhappy relationship with her boyfriend. The speech sounds like bad contemporary fiction, or like one of those terribly descriptive monologues that actors use at auditions to show their range. I immediately begin to worry that this meditative claptrap about piggish men and the suffering women who love them is going to characterize the entire evening. But then, mercifully, the actress announces that she has nothing else to say because, in fact, her monologue was written by "this man": Enter Tom X. Chao, a large, geeky sort of fellow who is surprised that the speech he wrote might be considered less than stellar. It's instantly apparent why the monologue is so poor: Tom doesn't understand women.
Cleverly, this opening monologue is exploited for the purpose of igniting the action. The woman, played by Eve Kerrigan, complains to Tom that the female character he's drawn is too whiny and weak and dependent on her boyfriend. She wants a stronger character. Instead, Tom encourages character exploration through role-play, and the two launch into "improv" skits wherein they get to riff on gender issues.
Still, it all really comes back to Tom--or, perhaps, to the type of guy that he represents. He desperately wants a companion, and he continually develops crushes on women he knows, but he is unwilling to lower his intellectual standards. He won't make concessions. It's not just that he doesn't want to give a woman the sort of attention she desires; he is unwilling to even try to connect with a woman who doesn't like what he likes, doesn't know what he knows, and doesn't see the world exactly as he does. Quite a conundrum, isn't it?
The fact of the matter is that, even after that opening monologue (which does go on too long, despite the comic payoff later), it's clear that Chao doesn't write all that well for women. Perhaps he should have let a woman write the woman's role! Part of the trouble may be Kerrigan's fault, in that she never seems completely comfortable on stage, but her character still comes off like a variation of the opening female caricature. If Can't Get Started makes any statements about men and women, they're either too generic, clichéd, or underdeveloped to be of much interest in and of themselves.
The thing is, Can't Get Started is not about the universal problem of men and woman failing to understand each other, but is rather about the specific problem of Tom X. Chao not understanding women. He just can't get started, as the title says. He admits that this is an unfixable problem, and the show ends without a solution. This acceptance is actually one of its strengths.
The other is Chao himself. With a distinctive voice and manner that makes him a natural comedian, Chao reminds one of the self-important Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. His mixture of misogynistic self-parody, quirky humor, and melodramatic proclamations of painful truths makes him one of the smartest and most original anti-comedians around. While some of the longer bits that he's written for the show (like the sketch about a Stone Age couple who get stoned) fall flat, his shorter gags are usually hilarious (like the mini-drama he and Kerrigan act out with geometric shapes). A running joke about his obsession with an obscure '60s group called King Crimson is actually quite funny and helps establish Chao's elitist mentality. And his delivery of both his manifesto and his uproariously deadpan 11 o'clock number (the only song in the show) are noteworthy as well.
Chao does clearly have a sense of humor about himself and his problems with women, and it's his simultaneous superior attitude and self-effacement that makes him funny. Can't Get Started may not be a flawless piece of theater, but Tom X. Chao is a talent worth checking out. He has another show, a solo effort called The Negative Energy Field, that plays on alternating Saturday nights with Can't Get Started; I haven't seen it, but it sounds like it might be a better showcase for Chao's inimitable humor.
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