Chicago is not overburdened with resident comedic celebrities — various aldermen and media figures notwithstanding. So when Nora Dunn moved back to her hometown in 2008, she quickly became the go-to lady for benefits, cameo appearances, readings and worthy projects in need of a boldface name.
Dunn certainly has such a name. She spent five seasons on "Saturday Night Live" between 1985 and 1990, appearing alongside the likes of Dennis Miller, Mike Myers, Victoria Jackson, A. Whitney Brown, Dana Carvey and the late Phil Hartman. On "SNL," she created characters like the talk-show host Pat Stevens and, with Jan Hooks, "The Sweeney Sisters." She impersonated everyone from Liza Minnelli to Imelda Marcos.
In 1990, Dunn was at the center of a memorable furor when she and musical guest Sinead O'Connor boycotted an "SNL" episode, protesting the host gig offered to controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay. That branded her as difficult, as the kind of performer who took personal stands, which is always risky in the eyes of network executives.
"'Saturday Night Live' is why I have a name," Dunn said over lunch recently. "But it also has its own baggage."
Dunn is known for speaking her mind and, as you might expect from someone living in Ukrainian Village rather than Malibu, she has a certain disdain for some aspects of her trade.
"When anything does not feel real," she said, referencing the schmoozer, kissy-kissy, cocktail-chatter circuit, "I have a very difficult time. I get a physical reaction. Something happens to me." She paused for a moment. "I have never been very good at the show-business part of show business. I mean, what is your soul and do you sell it? There is no question that my career has suffered as a consequence. I could have a bigger and better career, and I can't say I don't have regrets. But now I feel normal, grounded and myself."
Dunn, who is the daughter of a poet, has always been a writer. Naturally, she has logged plenty of hours penning sketches. She liked writing for the Pat Stevens character ("I knew her the best," she said) and partnering with the likes of Hartman and, on one occasion, John Malkovich. But in the end, she came to feel that sketches were limiting ("I was on 'Saturday Night Live' for five years. Five years is a long time. How many sketches can you write?") and has tended, later in life, to gravitate toward the longer, more theatrical form. Hence her all-new one-woman show, "Mythical Proportions," opening Monday at the intimate Theatre Wit in Chicago. A six-week run is scheduled.
This isn't Dunn's first solo performance for the theater — she performed a separate, earlier piece in Santa Monica, Calif., about 11 years ago. And, at various points in the past, she has done live shows, including, at one point, a rather bizarre double billing with Randy Newman. But the Theatre Wit show, which is all Dunn, as written by Dunn, is her first such project in a long time.
"It takes me a long time to write a new one-woman show," Dunn said. "I think about it for years. This one really is all my leftover business, from my pre-SNL days."
Dunn says she is well aware that her core audience is a crew who remembers those years on "Saturday Night Live," which would mean the over-40 set. "They remember sketches," she said, "that I have no memory of whatsoever." And the title? Mythical what?
"The show comes from me and my life," Dunn said. "The subtitle of the show is 'The Fictional Life of Truth.' And it's basically about how we all end up in our lives having (our) own myths, and it's a reflection on what is important to life, on things that have to do with the undercurrent of life. It is concerned with how I view my own life and what has turned out to be most important. If you are looking for a sound bite from me, I am not that person."
When: Monday-Sept. 22
Where: Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Tickets: $24-$32 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org