Stars of "Saturday Night Live," even the complicated ones born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago, don't tend to move back and take up residence in Ukrainian Village. Manhattan usually proves seductive, and then there is the siren call of Malibu. The performers with whom Nora Dunn played on the iconic late-night comedy show — Dennis Miller, Mike Myers and the late Phil Hartman — all became rich men. During those peak years, Dunn flew on a corporate jet to Washington, D.C., just so she could watch one of her movies with then-President Bill Clinton at the White House.
So why does Dunn, who has formidable gifts when it comes to voicing and penning comedic characters, now find herself playing — self-producing, really — in a 99-seat studio at Theater Wit on Chicago's North Side? Choice? Necessity? A need for control? Artistic integrity?
The ubertext of her funny but strikingly poignant one-woman show, which comes with a powerful undercurrent of melancholy and is quite different from what many of her fans will expect, is that she is ill-suited to making connections. Showbiz is hardly the only profession where relationships are more important than talent, or even hard work, but given its project-based structure (even for big stars), constant flattery is a crucial skill and, she freely admits here, one never in Dunn's particular quiver. She suggests that a childhood in Chicago, with parents who disdain phonies, is poor preparation.
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Dunn, who pretty much admits she has acquired a reputation for being difficult, is something of a fascinating enigma. You really have to look carefully behind much of the material in this obliquely autobiographical show, tellingly entitled "Mythical Proportions," to understand her worldview and experience. One of her characters, an 87-year-old Hollywood agent of Dunn's imagination, waxes lyrical on the dignity and class of old-school Hollywood, providing an unspoken contrast with what Dunn clearly sees as the more rapacious crew who run it today. At another moment, she talks about a childhood memory of opening up the make-up kit of a "disillusioned Chicago actor," a friend of her parents. "So I decided to become one," she says, only half joking. And then there are memories of slights nearly three decades old.
"In 1985," she says, "a fashion photographer told me I was hopelessly middle-class and Midwestern." Dunn has not forgotten. The most effective among us do, although I'm right there with Dunn.
The funniest section of the show describes Dunn's experience as part of a Hollywood benefit for torture victims that went horribly wrong after Tom and Roseanne Arnold fought over open microphones about the non-arrival of their promised pizza — it's yet another darkly comic picture of the horrors of what a star has to endure to stay something close to a star. A little later, Dunn describes returning to "Saturday Night Live" for a reunion show, which would surely be joyous for most, and "feeling like Norma Desmond." Later that night, she says, she was kicked out of Central Park for alleged misbehavior by a security officer who wanted to give her a ticket for feeding the animals.
It's an acute, moving, funny moment. And in this solo show, it's in gutsy contrast with the night Dunn, who grew up poor in a big Irish family on Chicago's West Side, was first cast in that very same show and went partying with Lorne Michaels and Anjelica Huston. That's New York for you. One minute you're hanging with Jack Nicholson and you own the town; the next minute you're being kicked out of Central Park.
Vulnerability does not come easily to Dunn, whose work always feels self-protected, which is how it feels in this show. That's not necessarily a problem — indeed, it's revelatory. But the main thing missing from this new piece of work, which opened Monday night, is the why of Dunn, so to speak. She approaches total honesty a tad gingerly, and she does not yet fully explain why she became this way. Why is it so hard for her to schmooze? Why can't she lie and get the gig? Why not just relax and lap up the money? Why? Why? These are the elephants in the closet. Plenty of TV stars have old stories to tell in one-person shows. Dunn is not the type, thank god, to show clip reels of Pat Stevens. She is trying something much more rare and worthwhile.
Dunn is, this show reminds us, now a gifted Chicago writer, landing squarely within the literary traditions of the city. A sense of having missed out on greater glories elsewhere afflicts us all here in the Second City. It fuels our creativity. Difficult Dunn just has to lay it all out, no holds barred, and go on from there.
When: Through Sept 22.
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $24-$32 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org