Theatre 80, a deceptively prestigious space in Manhattan’s East Village, earns its chief renown from hosting a young Frank Sinatra in 1939. Simon Amstell, the young British man gracing its stage for the remainder of this month and a bit of the next, cannot be compared to Sinatra in any plausible way. He can’t even really be compared to one of his trade: Lord Buckley, whose cabaret card was seized at the spot, had in swinging cat hipness what Amstell has in neuroses. Those neuroses may deter Amstell from becoming as historical a figure as the aforementioned Theatre 80 regulars, but with hope, his career will be as lengthy and influential as those who came before.
Amstell is a uniquely endearing export. His clothes—a haphazardly buttoned plaid shirt and baggy mohair trousers that are nowhere close to fitting—make him look like a shopworn figurine of a grad student struggling through finals. Yet, there is a distinct confidence in his performance, most obvious in the comedian’s tendency to smirk through his own stories and his readiness in engaging the audience. Like a true self-loather/self-obsessor (yes, they go hand in hand and it takes one to know one) Amstell is never short of justifications, as he explains that the only way he can talk to a group of strangers is if he’s lit up and raised.
Like his previous comedy show, Do Nothing, Amstell’s material mainly draws from very specific personal experiences. At the same time, Amstell’s trials are presented as everyday enough that his anecdotes never feel too unrelatable, particularly to a New York audience. An early crowd-pleaser involves Amstell recounting parties in Shoreditch, a trendy area of London similar to Williamsburg. “I find myself drawn to the trendy yet humorless,” he commented.
Like Do Nothing, which was tested out in the cavernous Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in 2010, Numb‘s overarching theme is an insightful and universal one. While Do Nothing‘s main concern was the imminence of death and living for the moment, Numb deals mostly with the inability to feel and miscommunication. The latter thread feels somewhat stronger, as Amstell transitions from having to explain he’s funny when he meets new people at parties, to mistaking a “nude pool” for a “new pool” in Amsterdam (Amstell immediately wonders if the utterance of “new” is a slight against the state of his swimming shorts), to a floatation treatment-cum-massage that Amstell yearns to steer in an erotic direction, to a failed attempt at setting up a friend with a cosmetics counter clerk. Stories about Amstell’s absent father reflect both the difficulty of communicating and emotional blockages. After explaining that his father’s way of initiating conversation is by saying, “So?” Amstell confesses, “I’ve accepted from years of therapy he was an absent father. I can’t accept he’s such a bad interviewer.” After the joint tragedies of a bad break-up and the death of his washing-machine, Amstell’s father comes early to fix his appliance; he cannot heal Amstell’s broken heart. As Amstell wryly comments, someday his father will be gone and he’ll need to form a similar relationship with a plumber. The chronicle of Amstell’s breakup leads to one of the most poignant moments of the night: Amstell finally manages to cry. But when the first tear comes, he grows too overjoyed to carry on weeping.
A big criticism of Numb has been that Amstell’s anecdotes are too mundane to add up to anything profound. Yet, the everydayness of these stories is what makes them stick and what makes Numb‘s most outlandish tale, wherein Amstell visits a shaman in Peru, stand out all the more. As Amstell participates in what sounds suspiciously like an ayahuasca ceremony, we see his whole perception change. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic plant and the Peruvian rain forest, Amstell becomes a “strong, sexy cat,” one who has no qualms about summoning and kissing the spirit of a fellow participant. Finding a connection with nature frees him of his baggage. Although the experience didn’t leave Amstell anxiety-free, his belief in going back to nature appears strong. So strong in fact, that he mentions our connection to it twice. The entire performance ends on the same note.
Midway through Numb, Amstell muses, “Some of this, I think, may be too sad to be funny.” For the general American public, this threatens be true, and appears to have already been well-illustrated in England (Amstell’s faultless sitcom Grandma’s House was far from the ratings smash it happens to be in my fantasy world). The nearly sold-out Theatre 80 was full enough to prove that there are still plenty among us who fancy a bit of existentialism with their comedy. Will Amstell just take the “most popular comedy export” crown from Russell Brand already?