John Fugelsang in All the Wrong Reasons

(© Joan Marcus)
John Fugelsang in All the Wrong Reasons
(© Joan Marcus)
"I'm not going to claim I've got a proper piece of solo theatre," says John Fugelsang towards the beginning of his one-man show All the Wrong Reasons: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love, now making its world premiere at New York Theater Workshop. But don't you believe him. Like a master magician, this writer/performer tells you up front that he's got nothing up his sleeve and then proceeds to pull off a magical, immensely satisfying evening with a theatrical bit of sleight of hand.

At first, you're inclined to take Fugelsang at face value. He begins the show with a rather pedestrian series of political jokes with obvious punch lines, and an extremely rehearsed stage persona. His smooth baritone has the clipped enunciation of a polished talk show host, which may remind you of his stint on America's Funniest Home Videos.

However, the handsome, charming Fugelsang soon has the audience spellbound by his easygoing manner and adept storytelling. Even what appeared to be throwaway jokes at the top of the show end up having significance before it's over.

The primary arc of the tale is Fugelsang's relationship with his parents, an ex-nun and an ex-Franciscan brother. After his father suffers his second heart attack, his mother tries to guilt trip him into marrying his girlfriend (of 11 years) Charmien so that his father can attend the wedding before he dies. Yet, as Fugelsang tells this story, he goes off into numerous digressions that include how his parents met in Brooklyn, how he disappointed them when he debated former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on national television, and how he tried to smuggle marijuana through a Florida airport.

Interwoven throughout these stories is his struggle to overcome his Catholic guilt and the programming of a religion that he knows to be constructed more by Man than by God. But while the show certainly critiques the fallibility of the Church, it is also describes a spiritual journey and offers an unconventional look at the power of faith.

While it's always a little difficult to judge a director's contributions to a solo show, Pam MacKinnon has ably assisted Fugelsang in keeping the piece to a tight 90 minutes. The performance is well paced throughout.

Scenic and costume designer Kaye Voyce has taken a minimalist approach; there are no costume changes and the only major set piece is an orange couch, cheekily invoking a psychoanalyst's décor, amidst an artfully arranged assemblage of backstage items such as a ladder and broom. Lighting designer Mark Barton provides a bit of flash, particularly in the segment where Fugelsang debates Duke on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Sound designer Jeremy J. Lee also does good work.

Fugelsang's script is filled with humor and insight as he addresses issues such as Biblical history, homophobia, and true love. He's even able to slip in a last minute political critique of U.S. policies on medical research in a way that brilliantly wraps up his tale, one that is as smart as it is entertaining.