by JK Clarke
It’s not unusual for a movie to have a lasting and/or overwhelming impact on a young person, especially one on the cusp of adulthood: a high school senior. For Jason O’Connell, that cinematic catalyst was Batman, the 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. In his solo show, The Dork Knight—playing through January 29 at Abingdon Theatre Company’s Dorothy Steslin Theatre—writer/performer O’Connell recounts his youth as an insecure nerd/geek who, like countless others, finds solace and identity in a superhero fantasy story. What sets O’Connell apart is both his desire and remarkable ability to inhabit—and ape—the central characters of that film. I defy anyone to find a better Michael Keaton impersonator . . . anywhere.
The Dork Knight doesn’t stand out for its story, for it’s a familiar one: initially insecure guy talks of personal growth, ups and downs, and trials and tribulations, through a medium that helped him grow. Rather, it’s O’Connell’s personal insight into how these films (the entire Batman movie franchise—ending with his favorite, the almost eponymous The Dark Knight—figures into the story) reflect, reveal and develop his personality and, more importantly, his love for, and remarkable skill at, acting. Anyone who has seen O’Connell in a play—most notably Bedlam’s hit 2016 production, Sense and Sensibility and Pearl Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2015—is aware of his ability to steal a scene or even a production. Hearkening Robin Williams (who loved to play outsized, comical versions of Shakespeare’s characters), in Midsummer (playing both Bottom and Puck in a minimalist production) he was, at times, a perfect Brando (as the Godfather), amongst other cultural icons. As ostentatious as it sounds, O’Connell was able to pull it off stunningly well, just as he did playing the polar opposite Farrar brothers in Sense and Sensibility. Happily, The Dork Knight serves as an even larger showcase of O’Connell’s impersonation skills. He’s like (renowned 1960s – 1980s impersonator) Rich Little, but with personality. Keaton seems to be his alter-ego, O’Connell having discovered him at a needy time in life, speaking as him to the bathroom mirror. But it’s Jack Nicholson as the Joker who answers back: “I’m in your head, you know that, right? But listen, y’know, this acting thing, well…. You’re not good with rejection. So… get good with it.” While his Jack is delightful, his Keaton is uncanny . . . stunningly on the nose, in fact. You can even see Keaton in his eyes—not an easy feat in the impersonation game. But there’s more: Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, Danny Devito, George Clooney, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale and so on.
Don’t be put off by the title of The Dork Knight, which initially sounds like fanboy comic book fare. At its foundation it is, but that’s secondary to the real story: the coming of age and development of a powerfully talented actor. And O’Connell, under the direction of Tony Speciale, is a compelling storyteller and outstanding actor with terrific comic timing who draws us into his world, allowing us to go along for the ride.
There were quite a number of “cultural landmark” films in 1989 and many of them could have taken O’Connell down the pathway to his love for imitation and embodiment of characters and themes. It only seems natural that his talents would surely have come to the fore regardless of the flick that grabbed his soul. I’m just thankful it was Batman and not Weekend at Bernie’s.
The Dork Knight. Through January 29 at Abingdon Theatre Company’s Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Run time: 80 minutes, no intermission. www.abingdontheatre.org
Photos: Ben Strothmann