In the midst of the manic, delirious, machine-gun-fire monologue entitled Bursting into Flames that New York-based playwright and performer Martin Dockery performed at Threshold Theatre Friday night, he noted in a passing diatribe what he called a counter-intuitive “formula” for comedy: “tragedy plus time.” That may be so. But Dockery’s 60-minute frenzy of physical storytelling, an extraordinarily inventive meditation upon the interminable ennui of afterlife in Heaven (or is it Hell?), is anything but formulaic.
Bursting into Flames is presented as part of Piccolo Fringe, where Dockery’s also performing his much-lauded monologue Wanderlust — a show directed by Jean-Michelle Gregory, whom some Spoleto veterans may know as the wife, muse, and director for a different Big Apple monologist: Mike Daisey. The influence is striking, particularly in the way Dockery paints evocative imaginary landscapes and settings with just a few perfectly placed verbal strokes, populating them with fully believable characters and nuances of human behavior that escape most observers. But where Daisey performs while seated behind a desk, immobile from the waist down, Dockery is a dervish of whirling movement and compulsive gesture, leaping out of his seat (there’s nothing else on the bare stage) and miming the action of his tale with the chops of a trained actor. Where Daisey is a master of the pregnant pause and the arched eyebrow, the rake-thin Dockery is a keg of lit dynamite careening down a hillside, pausing rarely except to snatch a breath and thus fortify himself for another surge.
The Heaven that he describes in Bursting into Flames has been imagined before: it’s a place that seems on the surface to be just what everyone is after in the living world — all the dessert you want without ever gaining weight, a house with a hot tub, the ability to indulge in death-defying adventure sports in which death is, of course, no concern — but which becomes unbearably tedious when you add the element of eternity. The only real spark of interest anyone can manage is for learning how the “new guy” kicked the bucket.
Dockery hurls himself from set piece to set piece in this sprawling narrative, conjuring up a stadium-sized arena of Heaven’s most jaded denizens assembled for a girlfriend’s exquisitely bad standup act based on the extinction of the dinosaurs, or an endless series of house parties that all end up in the hot tub, because everyone’s always in the mood for a “warm broth of friendship.” A particular high point is an inspired eight-minute description of one man’s quest to build a 2,000-mile-long joint in order to cough himself to the moon.
Dockery is a gifted physical comic, but as with all the best works of humor, there’s much more to Bursting into Flames than comedy. Dockery knows how to slip the dagger between your ribs so that you hardly notice it, and before you know it you’re contemplating the dissatisfactions of our hyper-materialist lifestyle and the rich ironies of our endless longing for more — more stuff, more friends, more money, more time. But human nature, as Dockery slyly suggests, has its own self-defeating formula: too much of a good thing is antithetical to happiness.
Bursting into Flames, fortunately, is just enough of a good thing to leave you wanting more.