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Darrell Hammond's project at La Jolla Playhouse is himself. Jim Carmody Photo

Darrell Hammond’s project at La Jolla Playhouse is himself. Jim Carmody Photo

Darrell Hammond is recalling his stand-up comedy gig at a college somewhere in mid-America and the female student who propositioned him afterwards, offering her body if he’d just talk to her in his Bill Clinton accent.

He reacted with calm maturity, soothing her in that unmistakable Arkansas drawl of the 42nd president…

Hammond did Clinton frequently during his 14 seasons (1995-2009) on “Saturday Night Live” but his mimicry skills extend from Porky Pig to the Rev. Martin Luther King. And he does some fancy shape-shifting, too, judging from SNL film clips showing him as an uncanny duplication of Al Gore, among others.

The clips and the live impressions are both part of his one-man show now premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse as The Darrell Hammond Project.

But they’re not what the show is about. Oh, no.

According to his personal memoir, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m Fuc*ed, Hammond has only recently begun waking up each morning without a dread of what the day will bring. The high profile of his comedy career is balanced precariously on a lifetime of psychoses barely controlled by, so far, 40 different shrinks, at least 13 types of prescription drugs and dozens of self-inflicted knife wounds.

Written in collaboration with Elizabeth Stein, who also helped with the Fuc*ed book, this play is a disturbing tour through a psyche ravished by childhood abuse not so much physical as plenty mental enough to establish for him a living hell on earth. It may be part of a cure, too, since progress is registered. One can only hope.

Early on in the show, Hammond tosses a thick, thick folder of roughly collated pages on the table. “That’s my file,” he says. “Impressive, huh?

“But remember: It’s not the size, it’s what you do with it.”

What he does is relate bits and pieces of a life haunted by vague but suffocating clouds of self-doubt, seeded with defiant successes, which are instantly not enough. There are multiple personality issues, identity crises and hair-trigger depressions.

But there are not really as many specific horrors as theatregoers have encountered in the last century or so. Plenty of main characters have absorbed and survived a lot more than this. Maybe some in the audience have, too.

What makes this such an arresting evening of theatre is the cold frankness of it all, the contrasts between slick professional comedy and chaotic inner tragedy. Hammond seems uninterested in stirring pity but he’s fascinated at the way all the nightmares mesh.

“You can’t be a monster,” one of the shrinks tells him, “unless you’ve first been a victim.” And these become words to live by for the adult, recalling his childhood fascination with such man-made monsters as Frankenstein’s and Godzilla.

The authors, and director Christopher Ashley, negotiate the narrow paths through this minefield with precise skill, delivering the goods both for the main course of tragedy and the dessert of comedy. Hammond tosses off very funny bits with casual, preoccupied self-laceration (literally) and when the laughs come, he reacts with the poise of the polished performer.

A major part of his mental battlefield, apparently, has been color. He has a different hue for every character, including blood red for crisis mode. When lighting designer David Weiner begins to color-code his fluorescents accordingly, it threatens to get cute. But it’s done well, with the same pro sheen that distinguishes everything else about this show, so mark lighting as a plus.

Robert Brill provided the cold, studio-like setting and John Narun did the effective projections.

This show falls between several categories so it’s hard to visualize its exact audience. But there’s always a market for charm and honesty.

Continues in the Potiker Theatre at UCSD through March 8, 2015.

DOWNLOAD PROGRAM HERE

Photo of La Jolla Playhouse
La Jolla Playhouse
Work 2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla CA 92037 USA Work Phone: 858.550.1010 Website: La Jolla Playhouse website
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Welton Jones

Welton Jones

Welton Jones has been following entertainment and the arts around for years, writing about them. Thirty-five of those years were spent at the UNION-TRIBUNE, the last decade was with SANDIEGO.COM.

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