Technically, Darrell Hammond’s world-premiere stage production at La Jolla Playhouse is a one-man show. But he’s not alone out there. The specter of Bill Clinton, Hammond’s most famous impression, lurks over one shoulder. Over the other, a presence far graver, are the specters of Hammond’s harrowing childhood – an impenetrable father who prided himself on being a Nazi killer, an abusive mother, and recurring mental illness.
Sounds side-splitting, right? There are lots of laughs in The Darrell Hammond Project, written by Hammond and Elizabeth Stein and directed by the Playhouse’s Christopher Ashley: impressions, stand-up snippets, a re-creation of Hammond’s audition for Lorne Michaels and “Saturday Night Live.” But if you’ve read Hammond’s 2011 memoir, “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem,” then you already know that he’s been to hell and back, multiple times over. Crack. Booze. Self-mutilation. Psychiatric hospitalization. Shrinks, 40 of them. If you haven’t read the memoir and this is all new to you, then hold on to your Playhouse seat.
With the aid of archival “SNL” footage, personally historical photos (Hammond and ex-Padres manager Bruce Bochy on the same youth baseball team) and music, Hammond riffs a little and testifies a lot about a life that has been no laughing matter. That he’s had a successful career during his most difficult trials is remarkable. If he tried to cope by hiding himself in his comedy and his characters, that wasn’t enough. How the right doctor – finally! – helped Hammond see the path to recovery and address the abuses done to him is the foundation of the fast-moving one-man show.
The Darrell Hammond Project is neither a riot act nor a pity party, but something in between: 90 minutes with a troubled talent who has survived to tell a helluva tale and who throws in enough spot-on Clintons, Dubyas, Regis Philbins or Sean Connerys to remind us why we’re glad he’s survived.
On opening night, Hammond seemed visibly nervous, but who could blame him? His are not easy stories to share. This is no “SNL” skit, but it’s live and it’s real and it’s often unsettling. Just how meaningful theater ought to be.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.