When the lights come up on Emmett Sez: (directed by Ben Shaktman), writer/performer Larry Hankin -- looking for all the world like a gray-haired version of Sesame Street's Big Bird -- weaves his way through the shopping carts and cardboard boxes that have become visual codes for homelessness and introduces Emmett Sagittarius Deemus, aka "Slappy Whacko." He scrawls the show's title on the wall and delivers a rapid-fire series of arty aphorisms: "All art's imitation, all seeing is blind. ... The truth is what's agreed on when the witness dies. ... What I'm going to tell you is the truth, and I'll make it sound like a lie. ... A true lie, a fairy tale."
He's a character invented by Samuel Beckett, he tells us. He's one of the great beggars in the tradition of Ratso Rizzo or the Little Tramp: "I'm not real, I'm a symbol. ... I am a poet, a storyteller, an artist of information. ... I fuck with the truth for money."
Wild, unconventional stuff, or so Hankin seems to hope. And maybe it would be if as a city (country?) we hadn't grown so accustomed to the homeless, so familiar with the plight of the mentally ill who were summarily dumped onto the streets beginning with the years when Ronald Reagan was governor. Or if we weren't already comfortable with generically crazy homeless characters, a la Lily Tomlin's Trudy.
Emmett is all too familiar from the start, and Hankin's self-imposed challenge -- to particularize him in a way that is fresh and illuminating -- falls sadly short of the mark. It's a disappointing effort from this veteran of stand-up comedy, Chicago's Second City, and (as co-founder) San Francisco's legendary Committee.
After his elaborate opening riff, in which Hankin narrates both as himself and Emmett, we get the facts of Emmett's life. A supposedly regular guy from Petaluma, we learn he was "downsized" from his position as a bank loan manager. But Emmett takes the layoff in stride, being a home owner and a healthy 60-year-old widower who eats right and knows how to keep himself occupied. A lifelong motorcycle aficionado (with an awesome collection of biker movies on videotape), he gets a job as a traffic cop patrolling for parking meter violations -- the major perk of which is a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson. He is happy, happy, happy. He even develops a romantic interest in Doreen, a woman whom he observes daily at a lunch counter. (Sound familiar? It will if you saw The Fisher King with Robin Williams as the movie's Emmett and Amanda Plummer as its Doreen.)
At this point we are probably supposed to recognize that all is not right with Emmett, especially when he becomes a sort of street Don Quixote (another distinct echo of The Fisher King) and begins detailing the rules of chivalry as he understands them: that it's not OK to hit women, but that it's OK to hit men who hit women. One night while tooling around Petaluma on his cycle, he sees Doreen being abducted by a fierce biker. He tries to rescue her, but he gets knocked unconscious for his trouble, and, when he wakes, he has no idea who he is. A greedy nephew named Charlie commits him to Langley Porter in San Francisco, where he spends his days under heavy medication -- until Gov. Reagan orders patients like him to be released "on their own recognizance," a splendidly horrifying irony.
All this is graphically portrayed and suitably distressing. Hankin is at his best when in the throes of the psychotropic drugs commonly given to schizophrenics. But as there's no foundation for Emmett's mental illness, it seems to come out of nowhere and quickly becomes generic. Emmett is any street crazy who could be found on any block in this or any other city.
When he wanders away from the hospital, he is utterly ignorant of who or where he is, and therefore has no idea where he might go. That is the piece's biggest problem. Without a clear goal to hold Emmett's focus, his vision of chivalry and of rescuing Doreen never really stirs him to action. Worse, the recital of his daily routines takes on a quality of forced loopiness that is all too easy to dismiss. He raves, pure and simple, and we can close our ears, clutch our wallets, and move on.
To be sure, there are laughs aplenty in Emmett Sez:, even if we may not feel entirely comfortable responding that way. Hankin's timing is flawless, and he's too consummate a professional to let his audience down. The night I saw the show, for instance, the house was sparse, but Hankin quickly established a confident rapport and the laughs came on a steady basis.
But nothing in Emmett's world really comes alive as he seems to see it. Doreen may not even exist, for all we can tell of her. Although apparently the guiding force in his life, she remains nothing but a name and symbol. The most vivid of the peripheral personalities is nephew Charlie, who is trying "to disappear Emmett permanently." Charlie, at least, has an objective: clear title to Emmett's house.