The Connelly Theater is a perfectly lovely proscenium house, but it is the perfectly wrong venue for John Epperson: Show Trash, a tepid autobiographical revue written and performed by the man otherwise known as Lypsinka. The show silently screams to be done in a cabaret space like Joe’s Pub, where this piece premiered in 2003. A drink or three would also be helpful, and since the work is hopelessly mired in an earlier era of New York, a cigarette or two couldn’t hurt. Anything to loosen up the laughs and tighten up the timing.
Fans who have seen The Boxed Set and The Passion of the Crawford (the two Lypsinka shows that are currently running in repertory with Show Trash) are likely to be underwhelmed by the real-life Epperson, a passive and somewhat sad guy from rural Mississippi, dressed in his street clothes and growing gray at the temples (though with glowing skin and perfectly groomed feminine eyebrows). He sings in a wobbly tenor, albeit with enough discipline to handle Sondheim. And his piano playing reflects his many years working as a rehearsal pianist, most notably for the American Ballet Theatre: a heavy right hand pounding the rhythm while the left hand flies over the keys.
Epperson spends most of the long 90 minutes seated at the piano, telling his life story, proudly calling himself a “sissy,” expressing his admiration for the likes of Ruth Gordon and Agnes Moorehead, showing home movies of his childhood and photos of his early years in drag, and singing an odd collection of original songs, pop and Broadway songs, and pop and Broadway songs with altered lyrics. He laments the changes undergone on the West Side to the tune of Chelsea Morning, of all things, noting the abundance of strollers and crooning that now “the nightclubs all have daycare.” He will occasionally get up to meander around the stage, taking a sip of water and mercifully breaking into a bit of lip syncing. In those brief moments, the transition is fairly breathtaking. The years pour off of him and you understand how much training and practice he has put into his craft. But we are also made to wonder, at what price glory? When he gets around to discussing his love life, we learn that there isn’t one. He almost seethes when using the term “relationship” and breaks into a pretty depressing number with lyrics such as, “I’d like to need a larger mattress.”
As far as laughs, it is a rare night when a downtown show could actually benefit from more raunch, but Epperson’s style is off-puttingly antiseptic and soft-edged. His biggest gag is an impression of Katharine Hepburn singing a medley of disco hits. It’s a bit that might kill in a late-night cabaret, but feels dated twice-over here.
Not that there aren’t a few hauntingly great gems amid the rubble. His early inclination for drag is on hilarious display in a home movie that shows a distraught Epperson as a toddler, in near tears after losing a foot race to his sister, suddenly becoming joyous as he gets hold of a woman’s dress and starts parading around with it. And ending the show with a heartfelt rendition of Anyone Can Whistle was somehow perfect, earning a rousing round of applause. Except, under the rudderless direction of Barry Kleinbort, it turned out not to be the ending, and the show grinded on for another 10 minutes. The reward for this was a wonderful encore, a lip-sync of the novelty song, He Likes to Nibble on My Cupcakes. But, refusing to leave well enough alone, Epperson hauled out disco Katharine Hepburn for one more go around, proving we must live with the irony that Epperson is never more of a drag than when he is out of costume.
John Epperson: Show Trash –by John Epperson, additional parody lyrics by Tom Orr, Directed by Barry Kleinbort.
WITH: John Epperson.
Scenic design by Jim Boutin; Lighting by Mark Simpson; Sound by Matt Berman; Video design by Claire Moodey; at The Connelly Theater, 220 East Fourth Street, 212-982-2287, Through January 3, http://www.lyp3.com, Running Time: 90 minutes.