First off, the good stuff. Joe Orrach could draw a crowd in a vacuum.
His performance succeeds in being both raw and refined at the same instant, and is abundant reason for seeing “In My Corner”, his autobiographical, one-man-jam now at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. And I don’t utilize that neologism flippantly, for he shares the stage with the Mathew Clark piano trio consisting of Ronnie Gutierrez (percussionist), Eugene Warren (bass), and Mathew Clark (pianist), a high octane power trio that maintains a musical dialogue with Orrach throughout the evening. And Orrach is an instrument onto himself, who masterfully merges the rhythms of the boxing ring with the rhythms of the ballet studio. His performance is faultless, and like fine jazz gives the audience the sense of having partaken in a sophisticated improvisation.
So in the truest sense, “In My Corner” is a “one-man-jam”.
Unfortunately, that also reflects what encumbers the play.
The son of a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother, Orrach began dancing on the corner of Broadway and 72nd St. in New York. It was there that Gregory Hines first found him and took him under his wing. Orrach, at one time the United States Air Force’s welter weight champion, has been directed by Woody Allen, and appeared on stage with Joan Baez, Bob Hope, Bill Irwin, Melissa Manchester and the Cookie Monster. When confronted by all this potential background to mine, one wonders why, where the narrative is concerned, Orrach’s coming of age show feels so threadbare.
The “Golden Boy” account of the artistic son in conflict with the rough and tumble world of his family is well established. Whenever approaching an oft told tale, the trick rests in the presentation. To quote an old comic I once knew, “Kiddo, it ain’t the punch line, it’s the setup.”
Oddly, “In My Corner” has a solid and very distinctive approach to the “setup”, what unfortunately it lacks is a punch line.
Writer/producer Lizbeth Hasse works in the legal field and has written and produced a number of documentaries. However there is no mention of prior theater experience and therein may lay the trouble. In the program notes, Hasse, describes Orrach as “a physical, full-of-movement guy” and he certainly is that. But physical and full-of-movement does not a drama make.
From the time of the ancient Greeks through the high water point of Shakespeare and up until quite recently, the essential element of the dramatic experience was revealed in the expression used by theatre goers who went “to hear a play”. Even in these times of ours when audiences go “to see a play” as they would go to “see” a movie (which were originally silent), one dismisses the importance this linguistic distinction reveals at their own peril.
So what should serve as the dramatic chronicle of a man’s life comes across more like a hastily scribbled postcard.
Director Jeremiah Chechik has worked extensively in film and is also new to the demands of live performance, but his staging is both robust and lean, as befits Orrach himself. From an early career in fashion photography, Chechik brings a strong visual style that provides the show with moments of entrancing beauty.
Were Chechik, Hasse and Orrach to amend the piece’s coming of age dramatic story, they would have a perfect evening in the theatre. As it stands however, it’s close enough. Go and enjoy.