What’s a nice kid from the suburbs doing in a show like this?
Aaron Berg ready for the Big Apple
Aaron Berg ready to take New York by storm with new one-man show
The Drowsy Chaperone started out as a Toronto Fringe Festival show then took Broadway by storm. Although North Yorker Aaron Berg’s saga The Underbelly Diaries is a far cry from Bob Martin’s cheery tale, it’s sure to shake up New York City.
I’ve watched this show evolve over the past five years — from a late-night workshop at Yuk Yuk’s to a successful fringe show to a mini-tour in California to the New York Fringe and finally to this three-week run on Theatre Row, off-Broadway.
Berg is a stand-up comic who made the move to the Big Apple a year ago. His material is personal, confessional, confrontational and scabrous. It’s not for the fainthearted, but he brings down the house every time. He would have liked to stay in his hometown, but his act is too rough-hewn for Just for Laughs or Comedy Now. But if you like performance artists such as Eric Bogosian or Danny Hoch or John Leguiziamo, then Berg’s your guy.
He grew up in a prominent Jewish family but refused to let his advantaged background get in the way. His show recounts his Rabelaisian tale of a life deliberately gone off the rails as he dabbles in bodybuilding, steroid abuse, male stripping, sex addiction and more. It’s hardly the stuff a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs with a philosophy degree encounters, and this accounts for the show’s — as well as Berg’s — charms. The production includes portions of his stand-up act but allows Berg to stretch out the narrative, play a variety of characters and include some touching moments — all accompanied by a very funny slide show that keeps the play moving at a fast clip.
My favourite character is Tommy Zeus, a self-deluded ’80s reject who represents male strippers and defines the term “tacky” in both literal and figurative ways. I love the scene Berg creates about bringing home his Maritimer stripper girlfriend to Friday night dinner at his parents’ house, with him playing all the parts. And there are few scenes I’ve ever seen that are more touching than Berg dancing for a lonely gay man dying of AIDS, just longing to be touched.
Berg has been in 10-hour rehearsals for weeks with Toronto director Dwight McPhee. I’ve worn many hats in the comedy business, but now I can proudly add “Broadway producer” to my resumé, helping Berg out with his show (OK, “off-Broadway producer”).
Finding the theatre was the easy part — there are hundreds of venues in Manhattan. Getting people to come may be harder because, as I mentioned, there are hundreds of venues in Manhattan. There’s a big potential audience in NYC, but lots and lots of competition. No one ever has uttered the words “I’m bored” in that city.
It’s hard to define my role in all of this. I’ve been giving notes and guidance on The Underbelly Diaries since its inception and helped Berg find the venue and negotiate the contract with the theatre. Sometimes I’m simply a cheerleader, there for the late-night calls of an artist in conflict, reassuring him that the show is great and so is he. I couldn’t do it if I didn’t believe it to be true.
But I’m not the only one. Berg just inked a deal with Toronto’s Timshel Productions, to star in a feature film based on the play. Berg appears to be on his way.
Post City Magazines’ humour columnist, Mark Breslin, is the founder of Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs and the author of several books, including Control Freaked.