Last week, in an interview with Emily Wilson, Don Reed discussed his strengths and weaknesses as a theater artist. This week, now that his solo show The Kipling Hotel has opened at the Marsh, we can say that Reed has a very accurate self-assessment. His manic energy, body-morphing caricatures, and stand-up-honed punch lines make him a likable performer, so much so that you almost forgive him his weakness: loving being onstage so much that he has a hard time leaving it when he needs to.
The Kipling Hotel, a retirement home where Reed worked to pay his way through UCLA in the "electric pink 80s," is a "schizophrenic" mixture of young and old: the septuagenarians who lived there and the college students who served them breakfast. The building itself smells like a cross between "urine and log cabin maple syrup," its décor walking a fine line between "antique and extremely shitty."
But it was better than some of the other apartments and jobs that Reed, an Oakland native, found--he tried living with "a tall black squirrel on crack" and working as a stripper with the nickname "Li'l Chocolate"--and it served as the backdrop for Reed's formative years.
But it doesn't serve quite as well as the backdrop for this play. What Reed really seems to want to do is a series of impressions and anecdotes from a particular time in his life (while dancing to Michael Jackson or Prince whenever he can squeeze it in). That does include residents of the Kipling--a toothless man whom Reed creates by seeming to stretch and slacken his own jaw--and its employees--the one worker laughs, in Reed's telling, like a clogged sewage pipe.
But it also includes so many other characters--family members, dates--that the show loses focus. (His sexual encounters, told with the crass misogyny of stand-up, seem particularly ill-suited to the world of this show.) He attempts to tie in the Kipling toward the end, talking about how the residents give him an invaluable sense of perspective, but the pile-up of sentimental lessons learned makes it feel trite: The Kipling was "more than a hotel"; Reed had to "find out who his real friends are"; he can't worry about "what everybody else thinks."
In the end, I wish that Reed were choosier about which stories he includes, so that he can go deeper with an impersonation instead of reducing a person to a catchphrase. His energy and talent are considerable, but he's trying to cram too much into a single show.
The Kipling Hotel continues through Nov. 13 at the Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd), S.F. Admission is $20-$50.