'3 Mics': Theater Review

3 Mics - H 2016
Courtesy of Christian Frarey
A hilarious and moving solo show that's greater than the sum of its parts.

Neal Brennan, the co-creator of 'Chappelle's Show,' performs an evening combining stand-up comedy, personal monologues and one-liners, presented by John Legend.

The concept for Neal Brennan's one-man show admittedly sounds gimmicky. 3 Mics features the comedian working in front of just that — three microphones — which the program's cover informs us are for "One Liners," "Emotional Stuff" and "Stand-Up," respectively. During the course of the 75-minute show, the writer-performer shuffles from one to the other, as if daring us to keep up with what he's doing. But it somehow works, making the evening considerably more than the sum of its parts. He may need three microphones to do it, but Brennan manages to be wildly funny and deeply moving at the same time.

Best known for co-creating Chappelle's Show (you may have heard of it) and co-writing the film Half Baked (you're better off if you haven't), Brennan has extensive TV directorial credits, including episodes of Inside Amy Schumer, New Girl and The Mindy Project. He clearly knows his comedy stuff, and as a performer he displays a deadpan delivery and perfect timing that enhance his sharp material. Not for nothing is this New York engagement being presented by singer John Legend, which certainly doesn't hurt the show's publicity.

The wiry, unprepossessing performer's stand-up routine deals with typical subjects: guns, aging, race relations, ISIS, relationship issues, sexual positions, etc. But the bits are perfectly calibrated, his subtle vocal inflections often causing the hilarious observations to sneak up on you. And he enlivens them with astute physicality, such as when he personifies testosterone — not a good influence on men, it seems — by miming one-armed push-ups.

Similarly, Brennan's one-liners, which he seems to be picking at random from several pages full of them, are very funny, if mostly silly and scattershot: "The Little League World Series … or, as pedophiles call it, the World Series." And my favorite, "The irony of the word 'Palestine' is how much like a Jewish last name it sounds." 

But it's during the times when Brennan shifts to the middle mic, the one for "Emotional Stuff," that the evening takes on greater resonance. He movingly relates his longtime suffering from depression (he compares it to wearing a "weighted vest"); his years-long dependence on psychopharmaceuticals; his failed romantic relationships; his shame over treating his famous friends better than his non-famous ones; and, most especially, his tortured relationship with his abusive father, who died several years ago.

During these passages, Brennan is analytical, probing and also funny, carefully infusing even the most harrowing moments with tension-relieving jokes. More importantly, the personal revelations add fuel to his stand-up. Getting a glimpse of the inner man behind the comic façade adds an unexpected depth to even the more conventional routines. He begins one bit by saying, "I went to the doctor," then pauses, and adds in a sly, conspiratorial tone, "You know why." We do indeed, and the knowledge makes what follows all the funnier.

At the end of the evening, Brennan sends the audience out with one of his silly one-liners. Like every good comedian, he's smart enough to leave us laughing. 

Venue: Lynn Redgrave Theater, New York
Writer-performer: Neal Brennan
Director: Drew Barr
Set designer: Randall Parsons
Lighting designer: Davison Scandrett
Sound designer: Jim Corona
Presented by John Legend, Get Lifted Film Co.