Only Jeff Garlin could get away with doing an entire show about his giving up sweet stuff — even titling the show "No Sugar Tonight" — while swigging from a bottle of Gatorade.
The thematic disconnect was particularly egregious because, by his own admission, Garlin doesn't have much glue beyond the broad theme of his new determination to keep walking past the illuminated sign at the Krispy Kreme, flashing hot, ready and on the line.
"I don't have an act or a show," Garlin told his packed Steppenwolf Theatre audience Wednesday night. "I just ramble." Indeed he does. And let's not wimp out by calling "No Sugar Tonight" a work in progress, despite the ubiquity of the title for those toiling in the theater city of the work in progress, because Garlin attacked the very term. "In order for it to be a work in progress," he said of his show, "it would have to be a work."
In fairness to Garlin, he was suffering from the digestive impact of new medication for diabetes (if we gave out stars for burps, we'd have a constellation above this review). I know this because I ran into Garlin walking through the Steppenwolf front door, about 10 minutes before the start of his own show. It was a bit like being a bridegroom and illicitly seeing the bride, feeling none too good on the morning of the wedding. But if you didn't get distracted by the worried personal assistant from Los Angeles — never part of any Annoyance Theatre contract — for a brief while it felt like the good old days of watching the Chicago-born Garlin in North Side dives, back when nobody knew him and yet he had already figured out his most crucial gift: his ability, his need, to reveal more of his own self to an audience than any other comic in town.
Garlin has always come through the same door as the audience, 10 minutes before the show. The day he stops will be the day he goes wrong.
Garlin's gifts, and their interconnected neuroses, have only grown with time — when Garlin called himself "the most comfortable comedian in show business, not necessarily the funniest, which is what you want, but the most comfortable," he was speaking the truth — but so, thanks mostly to "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has his profile. No sooner was Garlin into the Steppenwolf lobby when he was ambushed by a shrill woman claiming intimacy and looking for favors. As he and I and part of Row F rode up together in the elevator, chastened by the encounter, one of the bone-dry Steppenwolf house staff suggested to Garlin that he might, in the future, want to use "the William Petersen entrance." It was a line worthy of Larry David, who has done Garlin some favors.
Garlin is, of course, an exceedingly gifted improviser whose work retains a crucial sense of danger. His style recalls Billy Connolly, another great comic only happy when he's tossed 20 narrative balls in the hair and left them hanging like so many shaggy dogs on the cusp of a bite. But whereas Connolly is an eternal optimist on stage, racing toward conclusions like a kid running for Scotland's Olympic pride, Garlin is a more laconic and unpredictable performative type — his tartan reads Skokie and Morton Grove — his mood ever dangling between cheer and misery, warmth and sourness, charm and edge. He loves to embrace his public, but when they tax his patience, he can turn on them. And when we got to the audience question about whether "Jerry Seinfeld is funnier to hang out with" than David, no put down was caustic enough.
But Garlin is always harshest on himself, playing out his determination to repudiate the famous Jack Benny theory that audiences don't want to know the comic's problems. Garlin has made a fine career on the assumption that they do. They did Wednesday night. The more Garlin burped, the funnier he got.
Back to that Gatorade. "Let me see what's in this," he said, peering at the ingredients and seeing the chemical wood but missing the proverbial tree. "Sugar," said someone in the audience. "Sugar," said another. "Sugar," yelled a third. Garlin finally clued-in. He grinned sheepishly and said that nobody should be held to what they do when they have just thrown up all night.
When: Through July 24
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Tickets: $25 at 312-335-1650 or Steepenwolf.org