'Douglas': Theater Review

Alan Moyle
Hannah Gadsby
More proof that this talented Australian performer is a distinctive comedic voice.
9/14/2019

Hannah Gadsby follows up her acclaimed, Emmy-nominated show 'Nanette' with this new piece that once again blends stand-up comedy with deeply personal revelations.

Well, that retirement didn't last long.

In her groundbreaking show, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby announced that she would be stepping away from stand-up comedy. But that was before her special became a sensation with its Netflix premiere last summer, leading to a book deal and prominent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and the Emmy Awards. Having won a Peabody Award and recently received two Emmy nominations, including for outstanding variety special (she's competing with the likes of Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen), the Australian performer has returned with a new show. Currently playing an off-Broadway engagement as the final stop of a nationwide tour, Douglas should further enhance Gadsby's reputation as a major force in comedy. Like its predecessor, the show also eventually will be aired as a Netflix special.

Speaking of comedy, there was some heated debate about whether or not Nanette, which featured heartrending segments in which Gadsby painfully recounted episodes of sexual abuse and the homophobia she's suffered, was really stand-up comedy at all. Many commentators considered it more of a monologue or one-person theater piece, because there were long stretches in which she told no jokes.   

It was a silly discussion, one that Gadsby rightfully dismisses in Douglas, which she informs us early on was named after one of her dogs (and something else as well, which won't be revealed here). She admits she's as surprised by her success as anyone. "Making it in America was never my agenda," says the performer, a 10-year comedy veteran who was well-known in her native country. She also sheepishly informs us that this show will not be as emotionally harrowing as her last.  

"If you want trauma, I'm sorry, I'm fresh out," she says jauntily. "I put all my trauma eggs into one basket." As we eventually find out, that's not quite the case.

Gadsby continues to redefine the stand-up comedy form with this piece. At the beginning, she daringly deconstructs the show we're about to see, informing us that it will be divided into traditional stand-up, lecture and monologue. She even reveals some of the subjects in advance, telling us there will be a Louis C.K. joke but promising that by the time it comes, we'll have forgotten to expect it. She also informs us that she suffers from autism, amusingly adding that the information will come as a "bombshell" revelation later in the evening.

Gadsby is constantly analyzing her material even while delivering it, as if to forestall criticism by pointing out the show's strengths and flaws herself. Indicating a large screen behind her featuring a picture of her adorable dog, she admits that it's little more than an unnecessary distraction. At another point she informs us, "This is the smoothest segue of the whole show" as she shifts from one topic to another, and she turns out to be right.

She also takes care to include many more jokes in this show, which runs significantly longer than Nanette. The observational material, about such things as her disdain for golfers, the silliness of "Where's Waldo?" and the incongruity of Americans using the term "gas" for petroleum, which is, after all, a liquid, is traditional, and funny enough, to be delivered by Jerry Seinfeld.

But Seinfeld would never delve into the self-deprecation that Gadsby often traffics in, such as her amazement at how it felt to wear a perfectly fitted suit for the first time. The performer, who charmingly describes herself as being "heavy in the hoof," helpfully advises, "Don't go on a diet. Get a tailor."

There are also many hilarious one-liners in the "lecture" portion of the show, which involves Renaissance art. It's a subject with which Gadsby is very familiar, having earned a degree in art history, and she comes across here as a satirical professor, projecting classic artworks on a screen and using a laser pointer to enhance her arch commentary.

When the show gets more serious, she bitterly denounces our patriarchal society that results in such things as a male doctor once telling her, "You would do well to listen to me" and attempting to prescribe birth control pills for her emotional issues. Those issues were actually a result of autism, the effects of which she discusses in frank detail.

She also informs us about the emotional devastation she suffered after a painful breakup with a lover who used a particularly offensive word to insult her. It's moments such as this that Gadsby crosses the line between stand-up comedian and monologist, but she makes the transition so skillfully that we willingly go with the flow. And true to her word, she eventually gets around to that Louis C.K. joke, right before ending the show with that most traditional of comedic flourishes, a mic drop. Except that once again, she does it her way, carefully placing it on the floor of the stage. Because, as she's previously informed us, people with autism don't like loud noises. It's the sort of movingly personal touch that will make you grateful Gadsby's retirement was so short-lived.

Venue: Daryl Roth Theater, New York
Writer-performer: Hannah Gadsby
Presented by WestBeth Entertainment