Act II Playhouse gives a fair amount of rope to Tony Braithwaite, its popular artistic director. Sometimes he hangs himself. Case in point: Which Reminds Me, Braithwaite’s sterile paean to the foibles, humiliations, and occasional joys of performing life. “There’s so much in the world of theater you don’t get to see,” he tells the audience at the top of the show. With good reason, Tony.
Which Reminds Me — which Braithwaite conceived with writer/director Patrick Romano and performs with pianist and occasional straight man Dan Matarazzo — charts a familiar trajectory. Through the basements and hallways that comprise the reality of show business, we get a view from the other side of the curtain. Tales of missed cues, unpredictable audience members, and pesky critics abound. (Braithwaite even takes a swipe at this very publication.) The familiar anthems of the profession (“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “That’s Entertainment”) appear on cue, delivered by Braithwaite in a pleasant but bland baritone. The evening is periodically punctuated by a film reel of local talents recalling their various actor nightmares; in most cases, the telling outshines the story itself.
Yet from the start, it becomes clear Braithwaite doesn’t quite know what he wants to say. He starts what seems like a tender, personal story about his own journey to the stage — a childhood fascination with the Muppets, complete with a halfway decent Kermit impersonation — only to pivot to some benign theater lore from long ago. I counted at least a half-dozen sentences beginning with “Here’s a great story…” followed by some apocryphal tale about Ethel Merman physically removing a rowdy patron or Pia Zadora stinking up the joint in The Diary of Anne Frank. Most of the stories are mildly amusing, but they’re nothing one couldn’t find via Google. Don’t believe me? Type “Carol Channing + corn” into your preferred search engine.
Stale impressions and real emotion
The inordinate amount of time Braithwaite spends on these unnecessary anecdotes pulls focus from what could be a moving journey of self-exploration. His inability or unwillingness to provide commentary on the foundational moments of his own life leaves much good material on the table.
This seems most evident when Braithwaite recounts performing standup comedy in New York City at the tender age of 13, and the prompt heckling that followed. What a perfect moment to meditate on the relationship between artist and audience, the instinctual drive of a performer — even some wet-behind-the-ears suburban kid — to right the ship. Instead, we get a quick setup and a punchline, and it’s on to the next thing.
The scattershot evening still offers mild entertainment. Braithwaite can be a deft impressionist, although his subjects are often low-hanging fruit. Yes, his Carol Channing is spot-on, but a good Carol is about as rare as a gay man who knows all the words to “Before the Parade Passes By.” For a section on negative reviews, Braithwaite dons a Trump wig to excoriate the critics and their fake news — but his Trump sounds more like Nathan Lane after three martinis than the current commander-in-chief. And when I say that a particularly lacerating quote by Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones is leagues funnier than anything else spoken on stage the whole evening, it’s not just my professional bias speaking.
At the performance I attended, the most moving moment came after the curtain fell. In a speech to the audience, Braithwaite implored the crowd to take the young people in their lives to the theater. “My parents didn’t take me to theater because it was my interest,” he said, real feeling in his voice. “It became my interest because they took me. Those are the warmest memories I have of my mom and dad growing up.” I wish this level of honesty, self-reflection, and genuine emotion were evident elsewhere in Which Reminds Me. It would make for a much better show.