Ralph Harris is a comedian who has competed with distinction on Last Comic Standing. As an actor, his résumé lists TV credits stretching back to Seinfeld and film appearances that include Dreamgirls. So he is well-equipped to overcome the monochromatic tedium that often afflicts one-man shows, and he looks comfortable at Booth Playhouse where his autobiographical MANish Boy opened for a six-day engagement. Making sure that Russell’s aptitudes are all used to best advantage requires that artistry come to the aid and guidance of talent. In choosing veteran director Oz Scott as his collaborator, Harris has secured the ideal pair of eyes to shape his narrative and accentuate his strengths as a performer.
Scott divides the stage into four quadrants. Downstage to our right, we find a vanity that evokes Harris’s dressing room, and to our left, there’s a trunk concealing assorted objects and a tall revolving stool that will conjure up the basement of his boyhood home in Philadelphia or serve as a throne for Betty, a former girlfriend. Between these is a rather raggedy couch that will accommodate the monologues of Ralph’s grandfather and his Uncle Earl. We begin upstage, slightly elevated above the other three spaces, with Harris performing a chunk of his nightclub act behind a microphone stand.
Logically enough, he receives us in his dressing room afterwards. We’re interrupted by a fateful call on his cell that kicks off the story. After 18 years, another former girlfriend, Trish, informs Ralph that he is the father of a 17-year-old son who will soon be facing a court date. During the remainder of the 96-minute show (presented without intermission), Harris will revisit his old neighborhood, meet with the troubled boy who may or may not be his son, and undergo DNA testing to determine the truth.
The paternity question that ultimately interests Harris most, his readiness to be a father, cannot be answered genetically. Ralph’s quest takes him on a meandering journey back through his childhood, his past experiences with women, and inevitably his family. Some of the experiences he narrates, such as the two faces of his father, Saturday Dad and Devil Dad, or his first misadventure with a prophylactic, need only Ralph’s stand-up finesse to keep us engaged. Others, like the boyhood fantasies that enflamed him when he took refuge in his basement domain, require a prop or a stick of furniture – like that revolving stool – plus the ability to do spot-on impressions of Grandpa, Uncle Earl, and himself as boy.
Harris triumphs in these impressions, but the question of paternity that hovers over the whole story seems to inhibit him when it comes to portraying women. For the most part, conspicuously with his mom and Trish, he avoids imitation altogether. When he does take the plunge with Betty, who is old enough to be his mom’s best friend, Harris is surprisingly subdued and inhibited. A little Flip Wilson sass – not to mention a wig instead of a do-rag – would go a long way here.
Harris is granted a brief leave from the stage to change costumes for Betty’s portrait and those of Grandpa and Uncle Earl, but he doesn’t tread nearly as softly with his family members, using his acting and impersonation skills to lovingly broaden the comedy. When we’re engaged by Ralph’s teetering impression of his hard-drinking uncle or watch Grandpa recounting his brush with death at a post office, where he is held at gunpoint, we don’t mind straying from the main story or the MANish Boy message.
We’re certainly back on message when Ralph receives the results of his DNA test, divulging them to us and the 17-year-old at the same time. But along the way, there are signposts telling us that Ralph’s self-doubts are part of his manhood. After all, he assumed the role of man of the house at an unusually early age when Devil Dad left, becoming the mannish boy of the play’s title. We’ve also been told of the showdown with Devil Dad, when the absentee father comes home years later and tries to boss and bully Ralph. Self-doubt has served as the gateway to self-discovery when Harris finishes telling his story, and the lessons he has learned are etched in authentic living.
MANish Boy runs through June 27. See our calendar for details.