Westbeth Theatre Center has been home to such hysterical theatrical monologues as Sandra Bernhard’s I’m Still Here, Damn It!, Eddie Izzard’s Circle, and Margaret Cho’s I’m the One That I Want. So its latest, ambitious production, Marc Maron’s Jerusalem Syndrome, has some big shoes to fill.
Maron has filled them.
Most critical descriptions of Maron’s comedic stylings usually have one notable thing in common: They all contain the word “neurotic,” usually in the first sentence. In Jerusalem Syndrome he upholds this legacy, delivering his quest for religious meaning in drugs, a Philip Morris factory, Jack Kerouac’s grave, Hollywood, and Israel–running the gamut of postmodern spirituality.
The journey begins on an empty stage. The lights (masterfully designed by Roy Trejo) dim. A screen shows an image that looks vaguely like a celestial body; it transforms into a galaxy, and then into a picture of a prepubescent Marc Maron. A soothing, ethereal voice announces, “This performance was brought to you by a faulty diaphragm.”
As the hysterical video sequence (by Kevin Scott) continues, the voice-over lists an eclectic mix of “commercial sponsors,” announcing each one more frantically than the last. The video zooms in on the childhood picture of Maron, until the audience can see his still-developing facial pores. The manic sequence crescendos until it grinds to a halt. Blackout. Enter Marc Maron.
The audience soon discovers that this introduction is perfect for the comedian. He opens his monologue smoothly, explaining the meaning behind the show’s title. “Jerusalem syndrome,” he says, “is an actual, recorded, medical condition.” Travelers, upon visiting Israel, “confuse themselves with biblical figures. They may think they’re God. They think they have a direct connection to God. They think God’s talking to them.”
Among other topics, Maron’s monologue recounts his own bouts with Jerusalem syndrome. His pace quickens as he revisits the first time he was struck with it: visiting Hollywood. Expecting instant fame and fortune, he instead finds an atmosphere of “vaporized disappointment.” (“That’s not smog,” he clarifies.) Shortly after, he finds escape in “magic powder”–his euphemism for cocaine, lest his audience “think [he has] a drug problem.”
This story reaches it full comedic and cathartic force as he relives one stint of cocaine that sent him fearing for his life inside his closet. He assumes a fetal position in his chair, rocks back and forth frenetically, and pleads to God, “Don’t let me die in a closet!” It is at this point, he explains, that a voice tells him, “You’ve gone far enough.”
He emphasizes, “That was God!” Other bouts of this syndrome appear throughout the monologue. One such incident occurs when he sees a vision of a wizard and video camera levitating. When he sees an advertisement for a camcorder that’s on sale at the Wiz, he becomes convinced that God is telling him to videotape His manifestation in the Holy Land.
The tone of the performance should be fairly obvious by now. It’s similar to the introductory sequence–fast-paced, hilarious, eclectic, and intelligent. Maron’s brilliance is evident throughout his material. His act seems to be an attempt to weave his series of non sequitur ruminations into a coherent, artfully designed whole.
He is successful at this, with the help of director Kirsten Ames, who, reportedly, continually struggled to have him stick to the script. For the most part she was successful, but she could not stop Maron from ad-libbing altogether. This is not to say that these moments are unsuccessful; the improvisation is very funny. For example, at one point in the show, Maron fumbles on the word “antidote,” pronouncing it “anecdote.” His cover up leaves the audience in stitches: “Those are two different words, aren’t they? ‘I have malaria.’ ‘You know, that reminds me of a story…'”
While moments like these remind his audience that he is primarily a comedian, not an actor, the boards seem like a proper place for this seasoned comic. His brain is too wonderfully quirky not to be dramatized.