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The Dork Knight

Jason O'Connell pens and performs his very own Batman chronicles.

Jason O'Connell performing his one-man play The Dork Knight, directed by Tony Speciale, at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex.
(© Ben Strothmann)

Bruce Wayne may have had the best kept secret in Gotham, but Jason O'Connell holds the best kept secret in New York City. The actor was most recently seen donning the coat and tails of English gentry as both Edward and Robert Ferrars in Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility — the latest addition to a resume that is saturated with similarly sophisticated Shakespearean credits. Deep down, however, O'Connell is just a Batman nerd who's spent as much time mastering his Michael Keaton impression as he has learning Richard III's "my kingdom for a horse" speech. Still, it's not O'Connell's alter ego as a Dork Knight (the affectionate title of his one-man show) that makes for the biggest reveal of the night — but rather the fact that within this small solo piece at the Abingdon Theatre Company is hiding one of New York's finest undiscovered actors.

The autobiographical one-act is essentially O'Connell's life story as told through the lens of the Batman franchise. Each comic, cartoon, and film marks a new frontier in his bumpy transition from childhood to adulthood — a process that comes to include the neuroses of a struggling actor who suffers from low self-esteem and a body image complex. Who stuck with him through it all? Batman. The DC superhero gave O'Connell an arsenal of impressive impersonations (his Michael Keaton Batman and Jack Nicholson Joker are particularly spot-on); he soothed O'Connell's aching soul during a particularly dreadful summer performing at a matinee-only dinner theater; and he offered O'Connell a sturdy male role model in the wake of an absent father. Best of all, this character he idolizes is just a man, who, through the sheer power of will (and wealth), made himself a global savior.

The passion with which O'Connell extols the virtues of Batman mixes an intoxicating Kool-Aid for even the superhero averse. Not to say the Batman lifers in the audience won't get everything they're looking for from Dork Knight. O'Connell has collaborated with his director, Tony Speciale, to create a one-man Batman fantasy funhouse, where all your favorite characters congregate for a multi-generational reunion. Lighting designer Zach Blane facilitates each of O'Connell's transformations, giving each character — from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze to Heath Ledger's Joker — a specific and appropriately dramatic aesthetic.

All of this, however, adds up to more than just a fun party trick. O'Connell is a remarkably honest performer and writes himself a candid, hilarious, and surprisingly moving monologue to match. His trip to see The Dark Knight Rises becomes a sincere catharsis — a moment for him to absorb the consequences of Batman's discreet retirement. He's happy that Bruce Wayne can finally live a life of leisure with the woman of his dreams, while also envious that he, himself, has not achieved a similar nirvana.

The Batman trope — while introduced as self-effacingly silly — gives body to O'Connell's stories, none of which would make headlines, but are compelling in their grounded relatability. After all, aside from our parents, nothing has a greater impact on who we become than the characters that consume our imaginations, shape our philosophies, and mold our visions of the world. Perhaps our inner conflicts truly are just debates between cultural icons vying to dominate our psyches. And if we're as truthful with ourselves as O'Connell is with us, the loudest voices would probably fall under the "dork" umbrella. It likely wasn't Socrates who wove our moral fiber, it was Mr. Feeny. And it wasn't Hooked on Phonics that inspired a generation of bookworms, it was Hermione. And that's more than OK, because if the comic book industry teaches us one thing, it's that the biggest dorks make the greatest heroes.

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