“Has anyone here been to Prague?,” asks James Hindman, early on, in his one-man show, “What Doesn’t Kill You,” which is currently being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. He doesn’t really want to know, of course. It’s just a chatty, conversational way to get to the story he wants to tell.
Written by himself and directed by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, “What Doesn’t Kill You” is a monologue presented with an air of homey intimacy. Hindman talks about being asked by Barabas and her husband, NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas, to do the play. He shares photos from his cellphone (projected onto video screens), “mistakenly” showing the wrong ones at times. He talks to individual audience members. As a dark joke, he measures the distance between the stage and the masked audience, to make sure there is no danger of COVID transmission.
The set is basically just four chairs — sometimes placed together, to function as a bed — and a stool holding a bowl of grapes.
I found myself wondering, especially in the first half of the intermission-less show, if his disjointed stories, silly jokes and frequent references to Cher would come together into something meaningful. And I’m glad to report that they did. Hindman, who is deeply experienced as both an actor and a playwright, may disarm you with his casualness. But everything, you’ll eventually see, has a reason for being there.
The two dominant stories — and Hindman frequently shifts back and forth between them — have to do with that trip to Prague, and his recovery from a heart attack. The stories are richly detailed; You learn about the cobblestones in Prague that make his plantar fasciitis act up, and the hospital’s many screw-ups during his post-heart attack stay there.
There are also detours into traumatic episodes from his past, and World War II history, and anecdotes about his husband and their dog, Oopsy Daisy.
His accents are terrible. His Hispanic nurse frequently lapses into a generic Brooklyn accent, and his Prague tour guide sometimes sounds German and sometimes sounds Swedish. “I have no idea what this accent is,” he confessed while doing the tour guide, adding to the illusion that he’s just a regular guy, telling you a story.
But as I mentioned before, everything (even that bowl of grapes) does come together and add up to something. And as you might guess from the title — the full saying, of course, is “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — that something is quite uplifting and life-affirming.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “What Doesn’t Kill You” through Nov. 21. Visit njrep.org.
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