Dalton James crashes into Dallas audiences with a black-comic tirade about cars, sex, and death.
Dalton James crashes into Dallas audiences with a black-comic tirade about cars, sex, and death.

Sex, heaven, and the Dallas North Tollway

As he drives back and forth to his weekday job, trying to wrest himself from the traffic jam that is Dallas, actor-writer-composer Dalton James finds his mind becoming an overflowing cornucopia of life's big issues -- sex, death, God, fate, and how slimy your underwear feels when it gets soaked with sweat beneath dark slacks in the late-afternoon Texas sun. It's easy to overlook but hard to overestimate how a vehicular culture like Dallas' influences our personalities by forcing us to spend hours a week trapped alone with our thoughts. Wussies who can't handle the solitude buy ridiculously expensive car stereos or -- one of James' pet peeves -- a cellular phone.

As he ruminated inside his automobile, James -- recent co-star in the Undermain's sold-out run of Shiner and the author of five original, full-length solo theater pieces -- decided he "wanted to write a show that would be really popular, like Defending the Caveman. It started off being about the intense desire for a new car. But then it turned into something...darker. It's still comedy, but it's blackly comic. I usually try to offer a glimmer of hope, but I can only do what I do, right?"

What James does best is channel those darker energies into raucous, funny, loosely connected tirade/monologues that turn tin-cup cage-rattling into melodious mini-symphonies -- at his best, he makes beautiful music from the sensation of being trapped. His latest, Auto Neurotic, begins with a quasi-Dalton stage persona ("So much of the stuff that seems most autobiographical [in my pieces] is made up") in the entrance lane to the Dallas North Tollway, tithing coins into the "offering basket" of the toll road, then quickly accelerates into a hallucinatory barrage of porn-star patrol cops, accident-site combat, flat-tire Christian conversions, and various other run-ins with the flotsam of big-city car culture.


Auto Neurotic

Undermain Theatre Basement
3200 Main St.

August 12-21

8 p.m.

Written, directed, and performed with original music by James, Auto Neurotic has been developed in pieces at last fall's Our Endeavors cabaret The Ultra-Happy, Super-Sad, Mega-Variety Revue and at Austin's FronteraFest this past January. Some audiences in the state's notoriously easy-going capitol didn't get James' undiluted, caffeinated performance style: "I jumped up onstage and did my thing," he recalls. "These five girls sat in the front staring, like stones. There were a lot of Tollway references and a lot about being obsessed with cars, so I'm not sure how well it translated."

As a stage artist, Dalton James insists he's learned to discipline himself since his last solo show, the occasionally brilliant two-act epic romance Wet Willie Loves Pyro. Auto Neurotic clocks in at just an hour and features a speedy, streamlined James who has developed "a pretty good grasp of what I can do. You have to be aware of the material itself, of the difference between pushing good boundaries and bad boundaries." And while he truly blossoms as a performer only when he's alone onstage, the commuter-like solitude of rehearsing a one-man show pales next to giving it up for an audience: "Right now I'm down there alone at night in the Undermain Basement, rehearsing to empty seats. It's a very creepy feeling."


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