Watch enough of the “I Love the [insert decade here]” pop culture shows on VH1 and you’ll be familiar with Michael Ian Black, one of their most frequent talking heads. The comedian, a graduate of sketch comedy troupe The State, has also been seen on several other television programs, usually playing various riffs on himself. Black has branched out, slightly, in recent years, and become an author. In 2008, he published My Custom Van ... And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face. Joe Jung of Project: Theater has refashioned roughly a dozen of these comic essays into their current show, My Custom Van, directed by Jung. Black’s theatrics may be zany, but they aren’t inherently theatrical; it’s just sardonic humor. So the onus falls on Project: Theater to build from Black’s foundation and fill the stage.
And fill they do, to a point. Project: Theater achieves half of its mission, which is to “produce engaging, creative and entertaining theater with an emphasis on works that are new,” and Van (which can be seen at the Upper West Side’s Drilling Company Theatre). This production does just that, selecting roughly a dozen vignettes from Black’s book and magnifying them in some of the most enjoyably over-the-top ways imaginable.
Van is a night of ribald humor. Its characters, all inhabiting some corner of Black’s mind, are all id and no superego. This show can get loud and dirty, and is probably best enjoyed by a younger audience.
Take, for example, M. Ian Black, the blustery character played by Andrew McLeod (all character names are pretty much spins on that of the author). M. Ian recounts in great detail his many conquests from the previous weekend. The man is an arrogant cad, prone to overstatement and over sharing, but McLeod, clad in a business suit and orating with the bravado of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, gives a performance of hilarious bluster.
Josh Tussin turns the volume up even higher in a pair of scenes as “M.I.B.” In one, he brags about having sported an impressive array of facial hair; in the second, he rages about throwing the most awesome taco party ever. It’s hard to imagine from where the actor draws his energy. I’ll let him keep that a secret.
The whole ensemble, which also includes Amanda Byron, Brian Frank, and Jung himself, is rock-solid. And Chad Lefebvre’s stellar lighting and projection design becomes an important character throughout the evening. But despite their immense talent, Van’s fractured episodic structure of chapters feels far less consequential than did their last production, a marvelous revival of The Secretaries. Here, all the pieces are in play, but they remain just that: pieces. It’s more like a night of consistently smart stand-up routines than a coherent work.
And it must be said, I’m not sure what this work does to support the other half of the Project: Theater mission, to stimulate “an immediate and compelling dialogue between artist and audience by asking questions rather than giving answers.” Van is great fun, but doesn’t take on a life of its own at the end of the evening. If questions were posed, I’m not sure I heard any beneath all the irreverent humor, impeccably delivered as it was.
Jung and his skilled cast and crew deserve much praise for turning Black’s writing into a stage piece. It may not be full of insight, but it sure is full of laughs.