By Brian Scott Lipton
There are few more fascinating men in America than Dick Gregory, the groundbreaking African-American comedian who (still alive at 83) has fought racism with every bone in his being, ran for President of the United States, and started a diet company. And there are few more fascinating – or accomplished – actors in America than Joe Morton, whose 45-year career has spanned Broadway musicals, big-budget Hollywood films, daytime dramas, and who is finally a near-household name due to his role as Kerry Washington’s uber-intense father, Eli Pope, on ABC’s “Scandal.”
But I am not sure I would have realized just how perfect a pairing these two very different men could be until seeing Gretchen Law’s alternately hilarious and moving bioplay Turn Me Loose, now at the Westside Theatre. Under John Gould Rubin’s reasonably unobtrusive direction, Morton displays little-known (to me, at least) comic chops and precision timing that – armed with Gregory’s provocative yet extremely humorous observations – remind one of Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock.
As for the more dramatic moments of Law’s script, it’s far less surprising that Morton can shout, or whisper, as well as anyone around. The result is that the audience is kept at rapt attention for the entire 90 minutes of Morton’s tour-de-force performance. (It’s not technically a solo show, as the fine John Carlin pops in and out as a variety of minor characters.)
On Chris Barreca’s simple set, which serves as everywhere from Chicago’s Playboy Club of the 1960s to San Francisco’s Hungry i to college auditoriums, Morton and Law take us through five decades of Gregory’s performing career and personal life. We hear his pungent observations about racism in America (then and now — and possibly forever), which made up the bulk of his comedy routines, and laugh uproariously even as we cringe in our own complicity. There are standard jokes too, about aging, sex, and Michael Jackson, and Morton nails them as if he had done stand-up comedy all his life.
Naturally, we revisit many of the key moments in Gregory’s life, from his refusal to go on “The Tonight Show” (until then-host Jack Paar capitulates and allows him to be the first African-American comic to sit on the couch after his routine) to the death of his newborn son (which, in this telling, possibly prevents him from being assassinated alongside Medgar Evers). As this extraordinary life unfolds, we listen in awe, disbelief, silent approval, occasionally disapproval (Gregory’s rants are not always easy to swallow), and never doubt his sincerity about trying to make the world a better place.
Indeed, in the final moments of the piece, Gregory tells us if he was granted another wish it would be “more.” Indeed, Turn Me Loose may leave many audiences wanting more of both Morton and Gregory.
Turn Me Loose continues at The Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street) through July 3. Call 212-239-2600 for tickets. Extended thru July 17.