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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Lee Evans: Gracious Monkey Boy 

A week ago on Friday night - a particularly dark, rainy night - K. and I went to see Lee Evans perform down at 37 Arts.

Most Americans know Lee Evans as Tucker from There's Something About Mary, but I got interested in him when I originally caught the strange little gem that is Funny Bones. Directed by Peter Chelsom, it seemed to herald the arrival of a truly original writer-director. Chelsom did nicely on his follow-up with another little-seen film, The Mighty. Unfortunately, it was pretty much downhill from there.

(I must confess, however, a weakness for Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack and therefore follows an unpardonable weakness for Chelsom's saccharine Serendipity. It's chockablock with awful and out-of-place performances - e.g., John Corbett and Eugene Levy - but...well...*sigh*...I'd watch it again anyway in a heartbeat.)

Evans' Funny Bones performance is truly offbeat. I immediately wanted to know, "Who IS that guy?" Is he retarded or a genius? (I famously remarked to K. about Benecio Del Toro after seeing The Usual Suspects, "There's this guy I've never heard of in the movie and if his character is not really who he is, he's amazing." It's since been established in my mind that he's the latter, not the former.)

So I went out and began to research Lee Evans and discovered in watching videos of his live shows that he is a kind of physical genius - more an heir to Jerry Lewis that even Jim Carrey in that Evans' lines can be irrelevant to the plot or story he's telling. It's his physicality you cannot forget, nor help but respond to.

So when he scheduled some dates in NYC recently, I got tickets. I wanted the live experience for myself. What I got was the kind of singular experience that live performances can bring, but that no performer can truly plan to provide.

It started something like this: K. and I were in the third row. The curtain was delayed because of the torrential downpour. As we sat waiting, we were observing the audience around us. Arriving very late was a couple who sat in the front row center. I pointed out the female half and remarked rather mindlessly to K. "Well, obviously she must be lucky." The woman had a tiny clover tattoo on her back. K. responded, "Is that a liquor bottle?"

The gentleman had some kind of clear-necked bottle in his hand, but I couldn't tell the scale of it. The theatre has a open bar and allows beverages of all kinds to be taken to your seat. There were lots of folks with beer bottles around us, but we couldn't make out what he was drinking.

Before we could learn anything more, Evans kicked off his hyperkinetic performance. It was maybe 3 minutes into it before he needed to swab himself down with a towel. Seriously. You have NEVER seen anyone sweat onstage like Lee Evans. He flings himself with abandon, his comic patter sometimes highbrow, more often pedestrian, but always accompanied by remarkable, high speed feats of transforming his rubbery body and face to suit his purposes. Given his animated physicality, it's not too surprising that Evans often refers to himself as "Monkey Boy" during the show.

I think one of the moments I prefer most is his impersonation of his grumpy suitcase going around on a carousel. Bizarre, original and wonderful. In fact, in the midst of rather standard bits about coming home drunk and trying to be quiet, Evans throws in conversation between himself and inanimate objects, such as a creaky door. I think he might be one of the best impersonators of inanimate objects with personality in this or any other time. (Perhaps this is a sense of humor peculiar to the U.K. Think of T.H. White's description of Merlin's walking mustard pot in The Once and Future King which was always "giving itself airs".)

Partway into the show, the man in the front row took a photo of Lee Evans with a digital camera and full flash. Evans was unperturbed and continued. But after a while, a security guard stood at the end of the row and motioned the front row patron to follow him out the side door.

Evans seemed to have missed the crucial part of why the man was walking out. He stopped his bit and turned to the woman. "Where's he off to?" Evans asked and began to work with the woman in the front row. She was unresponsive. Evans played the bit solo for a while and when the man came sauntering in, it seemed apparent that the guards had made him delete the photo. Evans inquired, "Where did you go? Is everything alright?"

Trying to make some humor, the gentlemen responded in a thick Liverpudlian accent that he had "the runs". Evans gingerly stepped around this, playing it only slightly and then diving back into his material.

About 10 minutes later and apropos of nothing in particular, the man suddenly yelled out, "Superstar!"

Evans responded, "What?" It became apparent at this point that the guy was completely blasted out of his mind by now. Drunk Guy blurted out some unintelligible phrases and Evans decided to work with it. Mr. Evans began asking questions, "Where are you from? What brings you to New York?" And so on.

Drunk Guy claimed that he'd come from Las Vegas, where he's just married his girlfriend of eighteen years. Evans was a genial interlocutor, but Drunk Guy was suspicious: "You're taking the piss."

"I'm not!" exclaimed Evans. "That's not the kind of show I do!" Evans then used Drunk Guy's recent travels as a way to seque back into his routine. "So that's how you got here, let me tell you about my trip over." Quite a graceful transition and the audience was grateful for it.

So back into his spastic routine then when not another 15 minutes later, Drunk Guy yells out something else. Once again, Evans decided not to ignore him and requested some help from the tech crew. "Let's get the spotlight down on this gentleman, shall we?" Rather gently, Evans explained to Drunk Guy that he was going to allow him some attention since he clearly craved it. Evans said, "Here. You want to say something?" He handed Drunk Guy the microphone and once it was out of his hand, Evans said, "I need a break." And he skipped off stage left, leaving Drunk Guy with the microphone.

At this point, Drunk Guy was out of his depth and he climbed on stage protesting, "Lee. No. Lee. Go on with your show. LEE." As soon as he was onstage, two security guards came hustling down the aisle, jumped up onstage, dragged Drunk Guy down and walked him out the side door.

Evans was quite perturbed and protested all the while. "No! Hey! We were only having a bit of fun. He didn't mean any harm. Hey! Don't! That's not necessary!" But it was too late. Evans turned to the audience and said, "Look. I can't live with this. He's not harming anyone, is he?"

"I'm from the British Consulate, Lee!" volunteered a woman sitting two down from me. "If he's really in any trouble here, I can help."

"Ooooh! Great!" Evans cheered up. And he chatted with her and made light of the situation. But clearly he was unhappy with Drunk Guy not having been returned. "Look," he said to us. "I can't have this. I won't be able to sleep tonight." And so he put down the microphone, jumped off the front of the stage and zipped out the side door to intervene.

Moments later, he returned escorting Drunk Guy back to his chair. The audience made approving noises for Lee's gracious behavior (at this point, we all felt on personal terms with him, so here on out I shall call him "Lee"), although some of us were not sure how great an idea this was.

Suddenly, Lee reaches down by Drunk Guy's seat and pulls up a nearly empty white wine bottle. "Here's the problem then!" Now K. and I finally understood both the size and the consequences of the bottle we'd half glimpsed just before the lights went down.

He put the wine bottle out of reach onstage. "You have to be careful with this. This will get you every time. I know. I'm Irish. My mother used to finish one of these before breakfast." This was said matter of factly in a direct address to Drunk Guy, not at all for laughs and not lecturing. Rather kindly said, in truth.

He continued, "Seriously, friend. You have to watch out now, haven't you?" Then turning back toward humor, he said, "You can't muck about like that in New York, right?" And he picked up a comic theme he'd been following earlier in the evening about the size of New York police officers and similar observations about New Yorkers, crime, and terrorism.

Lee continued on through the evening and when it was time for curtain, he thanked everyone, reached over the edge of the stage to shake hands with all comers and made a special point to sincerely thank Drunk Guy and shake his hand, too. "You've had an real New York experience now, haven't you? You'll remember this night."

I think many of us will. Not because of Drunk Guy's behavior, but because of Lee's grace under pressure. Most comedians would have let Drunk Guy spend the night in jail. (Personally, I wouldn't have minded.) But it was clear that Lee is a surprisingly gentle soul and he couldn't live with anyone having a bad experience - even of their own making - at one of his performances.
2 comments
Comments:
What a delightful story! I am now intrigued by Lee Evans.

(And I must confess, I am a very ardent Serendipity fan. Have the soundtrack and everything. Ah, love.)
 
Lee Evans is very gracious indeed, he's an extemely down to Earth man, he's brilliant, love him. Loved reading this little story :)
 
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