The best solo shows result when a performer uses every resource available to advance a story; other actors present a one-person show as a calling card of their talents for agents and producers who might attend. The largest theater festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is bound to have both kinds of acts in abundance; the festival boasts some of the best theater from around the globe as well as extensive networking opportunities for worldly theater artists. Four companies previewed solo (and two-man) shows in New York during the past few weeks, in a mini-festival called East to Edinburgh at the 59E59 Theaters. Three of these are reviewed below:

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Who's Your Daddy?

Wendy Spero in Who's Your Daddy?
Wendy Spero in Who's Your Daddy?
For whatever reason, many one-woman shows seem to have a couch as a centerpiece of their sets. The sofa in Wendy Spero's Who's Your Daddy? conjures an image of a childhood home and the play recounts the writer-performer's search for information about her father, who died when she was too young to remember him. She presents her findings through mementos, anecdotes, and slides that are projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. Watching the show is like sneaking in on a rather hi-tech family gathering.

Like all get-togethers of this kind, the material is chosen for polite company consumption, and Spero keeps the audience at an arm's length from the emotional core of her story. That can be chalked up to the actress's natural geniality, but it leaves the audience feeling as safe as a guest in a dinner party. If you're not expecting catharsis, there are some engaging stories along the way, including one about her father's resemblance to porn star Ron Jeremy. (Spero shows us photos of the two men side by side to prove the point!) Other highlights include an unlikely run-in with Hugh Grant and home movies of granny taking a plunge.

When I saw the show, the "boss" that Spero refers to throughout was in attendance. He and her other friends may have felt a deeper resonance to the story; Spero's shying away from more affecting material made this one a family affair.

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Peter Loureiro as Citizen Walken
Peter Loureiro as Citizen Walken
Citizen Walken

Technically, Citizen Walken has one actor too many to be a one-man show. Peter Loureiro plays oddball film celebrity Christopher Walken while another actor (Christopher Wisner) plays a gaggle of his "guests" on a fake talk show hosted by Walken. Many solo performances use a similar format but they substitute a tape recording for the other actor. Whatever the dynamics of casting, this piece is subject to the same pitfalls and challenges faced by conventional one-man shows.

For instance, it fails to back up its showmanship with substance. Billed as a send-up of celebrity culture, Citizen Walken is more like a rehash of last year's Saturday Night Live sketches performed by virtuoso mimics. The point of it is that Walken has eccentric mannerisms, but there are several other less-than-shocking observations along the way. Apparently, Jamie Farr makes an unconvincing drag queen; James Lipton tends to over-ingratiate himself to his guests on Inside the Actor's Studio; and Al Pacino sometimes has trouble controlling the volume of his voice. (Pacino's catchphrase "Hoo-ah" is the punch line for a number of jokes.) Tom Dunn's strong direction can't support this flimsy material.

It's peculiar that the creators are bringing this act to Scotland, where the pop cultural references will be an ocean removed from their immediate relevance. While Loureiro and Wisner are talented performers and comedians, their dated material makes for a pretty uninteresting calling card.

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Notes to the Motherland

Paul Rajeckas from Notes to the Motherland
Paul Rajeckas from Notes to the Motherland
In Notes to the Motherland, actor Paul Rajeckas plays his Lithuanian alter-ego Paulius Bombalytis, who recounts gripping stories from that Eastern European country through World War II and the era of the Iron Curtain. His perspective is unique, that of an observer of a right-wing nationalist movement.

Paulius is an adolescent during the WW-II years and the impressionable boy spends a lot of his time at a "Men's Choir" with his father and his cohorts. There, the men goad him to drink beer, laugh at him when he burps, and taunt him by calling him a homosexual. Only years later does he learn about the group's ties to the National Front and about the concepts of anti-Semitism and homophobia. After he discovers a mysterious diary as an adult, he reads about his grandmother's involvement in the resistance and returns home to find out more.

When Rajeckas mentions pinecones, the audience can almost smell an evergreen forest. The storyteller uses clowning, mime, song, and dance -- not to show off his prodigious talents but to animate his accounts in a way that a straight confessional just couldn't accomplish. Rather than speak lines, he creates images that stay in your memory long after the performance has ended.

The highest prize of the Edinburgh Fringe is a "Fringe First," awarded to a show or company in every week of the run. True, I have only seen three shows out of hundreds that will be presented in the festival (and all of them from New York), but I would place my bets on Notes to the Motherland to receive some sort of recognition.