Aaron Berg in publicity photo
for The Underbelly Diaries
(Courtesy of the company)
Aaron Berg in publicity photo
for The Underbelly Diaries
(Courtesy of the company)
Aaron Berg's The Underbelly Diaries, now at the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, tells the story of a nice Jewish boy from Canada who becomes a bodybuilder, a male stripper, and ultimately a stand-up comic. It's an unusual career trajectory, and Berg mines the comic potential of it in his frequently hilarious, autobiographically inspired solo.

The performance, directed by Dwight McFee, is structured as a loose collection of anecdotes, arranged more or less in chronological order, and accompanied by illustrative projections. There is a narrative arc that involves a move to the U.S. to live the American Dream (or not), but where Berg ends up is of less importance in the show as how he got there.

It takes a little while for Berg to hit his stride, with early jokes involving his Jewish heritage and an infomercial-style satire about steroid use falling flat. Things pick up once the writer/performer starts detailing his early forays into stripping. A reenactment of his first time dancing a striptease is quite amusing, mostly due to Berg's deer-in-headlights expression and comically inept dance moves.

The only romantic relationships that Berg discusses in the show are ones that he's had with women, but some of his best stories revolve around performing in front of men. These include his first time being hired out to masturbate in front of a wealthy patron. The details are too raunchy to repeat within this review, but the sequence is one of the funniest things I've seen on stage in quite awhile.

Berg also throws a few serious stories into the mix. One of the most touching is a description of a lap dance he performed for a man suffering from AIDS, in which Berg confides his fears to us and seems at his most vulnerable. A bittersweet routine in which he sums up a five-year relationship with a girlfriend is also well handled.

What makes Berg so effective as a performer is his complete willingness to make himself the object of ridicule, combined with a charm and genuine connection to the audience. He's easy to relate to, even if the specific experiences he describes are not.