the usual freak show

The Club

November 2 - 18, 2007
Friday & Saturday at 10:00pm
Sunday at 5:30pm

Tickets $15

Written and performed by Jeffrey Essmann
With Michael John LaChiusa

Listen to the's podcasting interview with Jeffrey Essmann!

"...a consistently funny and big-hearted series of character sketches by Mr. Essmann, accompanied by the wonderfully deadpan composer Michael John LaChiusa...",
Jason, Zinoman, The New York Times

"It's very funny and very smart and all delivered in Essmann's delightfully low-key style..."
Martin Denton,

Jeffrey Essmann is an acclaimed satirist, actor and writer, whose sharp vignettes offer a kaleidoscope of characters ranging from “Barbie” to the fashion editor “Vivyen”. His comedy is bold and original with a dynamic edge that is truly both endearing and plain hysterical.

Essmann was part of the burgeoning downtown performance scene in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. A good deal of his career took place at La MaMa, particularly his cult hit Triplets in Uniform. Michael John LaChiusa often accompanied him live on piano with tunes and background music, all created to fit each striking Essmann persona.

Jeffrey Essmann eventually departed New York for a prolific decade in Chicago. LaChiusa became the celebrated five-time Tony Award nominated composer and lyricist of Marie Christine and The Wild Party, among others. THE USUAL FREAK SHOW, their reunion engagement with much new material, is bound to once again capture Essmann’s compelling sketches and vivid imagination.

Laughter and Tears, One Sketch at a Time
Jason Zinoman, The New York Times, November 12, 2007

It can seem as if there’s been a confessional solo show about every kind of tragedy (AIDS, cancer, Jewish mothers), but Jeffrey Essmann, a fixture on the fertile downtown scene of the late 1980s and ’90s before decamping for Chicago, says he has a new calamity to wax poetic about: My Journey With Type A Glaucoma.

“There’s never been a show — well, a good one — about Type A glaucoma,” he says, with the only straight face in the house, before reverting to his usual melancholy resignation seconds later when he realizes that Elaine Stritch or maybe Adrienne Barbeau will probably develop glaucoma and ruin everything. Not to worry, though, since we still have “The Usual Freak Show,” a consistently funny and big-hearted series of character sketches by Mr. Essmann, accompanied by the wonderfully deadpan composer Michael John LaChiusa (“The Wild Party,” “Marie Christine”) on the piano, playing Herb to Mr. Essmann’s Kiki.

In the grand old tradition of Ruth Draper and Lily Tomlin, Mr. Essmann performs a series of monologues that crackle and pop with a witty playfulness anchored by an elegantly literate writing style. Pretentiousness of all kinds takes a beating here. Granted, his satirical targets have been hit before. (Another fashion editor? Hasn’t Anna Wintour suffered enough?) But he displays an affection for his ridiculous characters, making the effort to see their side of the story, and this elevates his portraits above caricature.

Mr. Essmann has kept his version of a dissolute and angry Barbie come to life, but the rest of the material is new, including a French existential slam poet that absolutely nails the overheated doomed romanticism of an undergraduate in thrall to Sartre: “We made love by the river,” he says, “and then we vomited because we were so free.”

But Mr. Essmann is perhaps at his best when he’s playing himself. He opens each act with a slightly absurd stand-up routine featuring punch lines as dry and sculptured as those of Steven Wright. “It’s great to be here,” he says, before adding quietly, “It’s great to be out of the apartment.”

This character, if that’s the right way to describe him, is a cerebral seen-it-all performer a bit tired with the world. He isn’t exactly jaded, but don’t expect him to fly off the handle about the commercial possibilities of glaucoma-based performance art. “Reality’s all right,” he says offhandedly. “You just don’t want to overdo it.” review
Martin Denton · November 2, 2007

Abel Carter, the chipper but closety and vaguely creepy host of "An American Treasury of Song," a Public Access TV show in an unidentified Midwestern American city, is supposed to be talking about the music of ante-bellum America: "Beautiful Dreamer," minstrels, that sort of thing. But he can't stop digressing—at length—about that one note at the end of "The Man That Got Away" (the Carnegie Hall recording) when Judy just knocks his socks off; or about the local production of The Pajama Game that his accompanist worked on, which proved to be such a controversial choice that most of the book had to excised (allowing them to focus on the relationships between the characters).

Now, if you're still with me, perhaps even smiling with a bit of recognition, then Jeffrey Essmann is looking for you: you need to be in the audience of his new show at La MaMa, The Usual Freak Show. It's very funny and very smart and all delivered in Essmann's delightfully low-key style, with a similarly understated (but just as terrific) Michael John LaChiusa at the piano. (Yes, Michael John LaChiusa: he was Essmann's accompanist back in the late '80s/early '90s, before he became one of the most famous American theatre composers.)

Essmann plays four characters in extended monologues/vignettes that each puncture, at least a little bit, the shallow pop-culture-obsessed American soul. In addition to Abel, we meet Jean-Louis DeBris, a French existentialist slam poet; Vivyen, fashion magazine publisher and doyenne extraordinaire (you can hear a sample of her on the nytheatrecast that we recorded with Essmann); and Barbie (i.e., Mattel's Barbie), on the skids and at the end of her rope in her latest (last?) venue, "The Barbie Nightclub."

It all occasions some sharp yet gentle satire and some genuinely hilarious comedy. Essmann fills out the evening with a fascinating piece called "Johannes, Pyotr & Marge" whose central surprise explains its title; I couldn't possibly tell you more. There are also a couple of standup sets, of the kind you'd see on a variety show or in a club—funny and incisive but slightly out of place in The Club at La MaMa, perhaps, where edgy is the norm.

If you don't have any idea what would be funny about calling The Pajama Game risque, or why it matters that it's the Carnegie Hall recording of "Man That Got Away," well, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you do, I think you'll have a fine time with Essmann at his Usual Freak Show. I left wanting much more, and I hope Essmann—who has only just returned to the NYC performance scene after about a decade away—will keep it coming.


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