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On stage: putting the fun in dysfunctional

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Monologuist Todd Alcott grew up in an affluent subdivision in Crystal Lake. His dad worked in the Loop in the ad biz; his mother taught in the Evanston school district. "The assumption was that everything would be fine," Alcott says.

Then one day in 1972, when Alcott was 11, his father quit his job. Alcott never heard the full story, but he suspects his Type A dad blew his stack at work when his boss failed to support an idea of his. Then again it could just as easily have had something to do with his father's aggressive speaking style; Alcott says his dad drove friends and family crazy with his badgering questions and unsolicited advice. For the next six years, his father started a series of business ventures. "They all were failures."

He opened his own commuter airline. "They had lots of stock certificates but no planes," Alcott says. Then he wrote a screenplay called Baa Baa, Black Sheep, based on the memoirs of WWII flying ace Pappy Boyington and his Black Sheep Squadron. His screenplay was rejected, yet a couple years later Boyington's story became a TV series called Baa Baa Black Sheep. To this day Alcott's father claims it was his idea, but he never made a dime.

To make matters worse, in 1978 Alcott's mother died of cancer. After that the family "self-destructed." His father lost the house, and Alcott had to quit college and take the only job he could find--working the grill at a Burger King in Carbondale.

The story of his family's slow, painful economic descent, and his accompanying journey into despair, is the subject of Alcott's one-person dark comedy Living in Flames. Alcott plays Alcott, an exceptionally neurotic guy trying to make sense of his life while eking out a living in that most brutal of cities, New York.

Alcott moved to New York in 1983. "I was running away from home, really," he says. "I read in a book somewhere that if you want to be a playwright you have to move to New York. Of course I moved to New York and one of the first things I read was an article in Newsweek about how Chicago was becoming the theatrical center of the United States."

Alcott worked for a time as a stand-up comedian, supporting himself with a day job as a movie theater manager. But he soon became sick of the stand-up world. "It was filled with people with so much hate and anger in them. And so much of the time in stand-up was spent standing around in bars until four o'clock in the morning trading jokes with people you just hated. I knew there had to be something else."

He quit performing and threw himself into writing plays. "I was writing like six plays in one year, none of which were getting done." After struggling for three years, Alcott landed a couple of small productions so far off Broadway they were in Brooklyn.

"I knew I had to set my sights beyond Brooklyn. But I knew that if I wanted to do something in Manhattan I needed a show I could do myself, where I won't need a director, I won't need sets, I won't need costumes, I won't need anything." At the same time, Alcott's actor friends began asking him to write monologues for audition pieces. That's when he hit upon the idea of becoming a solo performer, booking his act into a performance place that had variety nights.

Gradually his work became more overtly autobiographical. He began writing pieces that explored his feelings of helplessness and paranoia. Then he began discussing his father. The more honest Alcott became the more laughs he got and the more people came up to him after the show. "I was shocked at how many people had the exact same experience."

By the late 80s his career had taken off. His work started appearing on fringe TV shows like Alive From Off Center and The 90s. He decided to quit his job and strike out on his own, following his father's example. But unlike his dad, he's managed to scrape together a living from his venture, though not every project has been a success. He's worked for MTV's You Wrote It, You Watch It ("We wrote it, they didn't watch it") and John Leguizamo's short-lived TV show, House of Buggin'.

Though he's been commissioned to write several screenplays, Alcott continues to perform his shows as a kind of therapy. "Every day I do an edgy monologue like Living in Flames I don't have to feel that way for a week."

Living in Flames, which opens the Neo Mondo Solo spring performance series, runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 through March 30 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N Ashland. Tickets are $8. Call 275-5255 for information.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.

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