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Shtick Over Substance 

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JUDITH SLOAN and

LYNN BOOK

at Club Lower Links

February 13

Perhaps it was some residual second-city syndrome that left me so disappointed with Judith Sloan, the New York half of a double bill shared with Chicagoan Lynn Book. Or maybe it's that the New York artists who have been coming to town lately have been pretty good, and so expectations ran high. Or that our own homegrown performance talent is so engaging these days. Whatever the reason, Sloan suffered by comparison to Book, whom she followed.

The last time I saw Sloan she was performing at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival as a comedian. Curiously, the show at Club Lower Links, though it was billed as performance, didn't vary much from what I saw at the festival. Sloan's shtick--and unfortunately that's what it is--is still primarily taking on characters rather than inventing personas. She walks these archetypes--a Jewish grandmother (Sophie, her signature character), a Gold Coast matron, the Home Shopping Network typical buyer, et al--through a series of short, predictable skits.

The disappointment is not that Sloan's show is stand-up--despite what it's being called. The disappointment is that the material is so shallow. The bit about the Home Shopping customer is perhaps the most embarrassing, but the rest of the writing, with few exceptions, also refuses to go anywhere. Telling a story about feeling safe sleeping with her lover, for example, Sloan can't decide whether to be funny or vulnerable. Of course a good writer could have made it both, but Sloan doesn't even try. As she performed it at Club Lower Links, it was just plain uncomfortable.

That was true of her more obvious gay material as well. Sloan served up two companion pieces to illustrate intolerance. The first shows a heterosexual matron's mostly negative reactions when she learns a friend is lesbian. The second piece concerns a bored lesbian's response upon discovering that a friend has gone back to men. These are skits by number, however. The homophobia of the former and the ennui of the latter both ring false.

Some things do work. Sloan's Sophie character, however trite the material, is both warm and engaging. Quintessentially Jewish, sympathetic and ornery, Sophie's not just familiar but genuine.

Sloan's best work came at the very beginning of her set: dissecting President Bush's state-of-the-union speech, she finds bits from Paul Simon and Sting songs as well as slogans from Spike Lee movies buried in the text. Working with real-life material and turning it on its head, Sloan is incisive and hilarious.

For the record, although I had problems with Sloan's show, the audience was hers throughout. That wasn't true with Book, who really had to work to hold the crowd through her difficult vocal piece, Tongue. I found this unfortunate because Book's performance was by far the more challenging and intelligent of the two--and the more deserving of attention. In fact, attention is critical with Book, because every little piece fits into every other and resonates.

Book performs the entire work behind a music stand that holds her text, yet Tongue's physicality is astounding. Book uses her vocal ability--she's capable of a symphony of sounds--to play through a series of emotions: amusement, irony, self-deprecation, self-love. At times she sounds drunken, at other times manic. Then she'll turn and be perfectly serious, or perfectly tender, or just plain bawdy. The transitions, though, are never abrupt, never sudden. Book winds her material around itself like a coil, going back every so often to pick up a piece that at first may have seemed a throwaway.

Book's focus is the deconstruction of language and the way we communicate. "This is not my language," she says. "It's not an exact fit--it's ill fitting, you might say." Over and over she starts on a concept, gets trapped by language, and has to stop to consider not just every word but every syllable, every sound. She pumps out the first sentence of each new section painfully, repeating it over and over, adding a word each time, with a steady repetition of synonyms ("gaps, crevices, holes, openings," she lists at one point); her statement accumulates until it seems to burst out of her body. By the end of her performance Book was physically exhausted, as were we.

Book's Tongue is high-concept, smart and rapid-fire. What she does isn't for everybody. But it's also unlike anything anybody else is doing. Her vision and originality merit both praise and awe.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Warren Lehrer, Freedom Lialios.

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