Leslie Jordan, the 44-year-old veteran of TV sitcoms and dramas, is probably sick to death of hearing this, but the first thing you might whisper as he strides onto the stage is: "He's so little." Actors who make strong impressions often seem larger under the spotlight than they do in conversation at, say, the cast party on closing night. Jordan doesn't so much expand to fill the room in the Southwest premiere of his autobiographical show Hysterical Blindness & Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life Thus Far as he causes the walls and ceilings to contract down to his size.
This is not at all intended as an insult, and I don't think Jordan would take it that way. He includes a vignette here about being hired to play a Christmas elf for a TV commercial; he insists on adorning his fantasy character with an extra smile here or a jig there, causing the audience to cast their eyes down and pay attention to him. That impulse, stretched across two acts in a theater, makes audiences want to crouch because they've entered Jordan's world, and this time it's necessary for them to fit. The larger, outside universe at times must've seemed quite threatening throughout his childhood and professional career. And besides his diminutive stature, Jordan has a Tennessee drawl you could wrap hay bales with and has been, by his own admission, "queer as a three-dollar bill" since he was a tiny troublemaker in a severe Baptist household.
Fort Worth's Circle Theatre brings us Hysterical Blindness after its runs in Los Angeles and off-Broadway in New York. The show has also just been wrapped in much darker, film-sequel form called Lost at the Pershing Point Hotel, starring Jordan as himself. Pershing Point Hotel, which won cash and production resources equivalent to a half-million dollars from the Los Angeles Film Festival, investigates Jordan's troubles with alcohol and prescription-pill addictions as his TV career took off (he had guest-starring roles in everything from The Fall Guy to Night Court to Ellen, and he co-starred in Hearts Afire and Reasonable Doubts). His live show Hysterical Blindness addresses this fleetingly, but mostly concerns those fraught tadpole years in Chattanooga and his relationship with his melodramatic mother. One can surmise from the sweet-and-sour sauce liberally ladled throughout the show that the connection has been at once the most inspiring and the most damaging of his life.
As directed by and with new music and lyrics from Joe Patrick Ward, the co-writer and director from the original Los Angeles production, Hysterical Blindness sails or sinks on your appreciation of Jordan's look-at-me personality. Jordan renders himself as expansive and amiable and self-consciously Southern to the point where sometimes you can feel that famous regional propensity to maintain a public façade strain against the onrush of much pain and, occasionally, bitterness. This is a song-filled revue about pulling up roots from an oppressive town and then withering on the vine in your dream destination -- for Jordan, Los Angeles. The wisdom imparted here: Fortunes will inevitably wane until you realize that that from which you want to escape is a travelling companion to each new destination. The show's peculiar dyspeptic urgency derives from the sense that Jordan himself doesn't sleep comfortably at night with his past beside him. Professional and frequently funny from entrance to final bow, the performer nevertheless seemed to turn into himself and unplug during the tougher memories.
"Shut up!" Jordan yells offstage, just before his entrance, to a choir of robed evangelical singers spreading public-domain hymns and encouraging words about the redemptive promise of a personal relationship with Jesus. These are the voices, Jordan admits, that he has never been able to get out of his head. In this abbreviated version of his life thus far, four women and two men are Jordan's Greek chorus, church choir, co-actors, accusers, and supporters. The play is bleached bare by caustic original songs and minimal costuming, but is still not clean of the stains from Jordan's life, which connects the scattered dots between Chattanooga and Hollywood. His mother's sense of shame at her boy's flamboyancy follows and lights on Jordan like a vampire bat all through his journey. Alone onstage, he seems similarly drained by the refusal of family and friends to support his acting ambitions and, later, by the death of his childhood friend from AIDS.
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While I don't doubt Leslie Jordan's tales about Aunt Junebug and the cracked neighborhood lady who paid him to swing her cats in a sack, Hysterical Blindness suffers from familiarity. Too many writers who haven't lived the authentic Southern life have nonetheless co-opted its wackier accoutrements for Dixie shtick. Other playwrights, like Jack Hefner and Del Shores, have managed to turn up the drawl volume so loud, you can scarcely hear the confessional tone of heartbreaking experience in a piece like Hysterical Blindness. If your appetite for a cornbread-and-iced-tea-and-family-secrets raconteur is large, Leslie Jordan's show is a simple but slick and shiny diversion. If it's not but you're willing to peer beneath an oft-viewed canvas, you will find a considerably more dramatic work-in-progress by a talented performer working his ass off to keep his demons at bay.