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.
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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.
Undermain Theatre Basement
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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."