Review: James Judd's highly personal show works

04:30 PM, Feb 04, 2013

Written By Leah Stacy

James Judd gets around.

Sure, he’s not the only performer you’ll meet who grew up in L.A. and moved to New York City. Factor in these facts, though: He opened for Jerry Seinfeld at Hollywood Improv, worked as a criminal defense attorney on the East Coast, had a brief stint as a magazine journalist and owns A Cellar Full of Noise vineyard in California — all while he writes and tours hit one-man shows.

His latest work, James Judd’s Funny Stories, plays at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre’s Windsor Street location through Feb. 17. It’s a return engagement for Judd, who was here in the fall and also during his 2004 nationwide touring show, 7 SINS.

The entirety of Judd’s show is based on his life — his dysfunctional family, in particular, a la David Sedaris. Once he describes his childhood, it seems a fitting choice. Judd’s father was a Mormon missionary from Utah, his mother a cocktail waitress from Las Vegas, making Judd “the only hard-drinking Mormon in the fifth grade who could also shoot craps.”

But the real beauty in Judd’s work, like that of any monologist who draws on personal experience, is his admission of imperfection.

You won’t leave feeling better about yourself tonight,” he says at the top of the show. “There’s no ‘aha!’ moment.”

For the next 90 minutes, Judd transports the audience through his fifth-grade book report competition, an aunt’s funeral, capsizing on a canoe trip with his family and how he made his first friend in New England. The stories aren’t in chronological order, but they don’t need to be. He warned everyone it was plot-less.

I wrote the kind of show I would want to see,” he says. “Just so happens it’s about me.”

Between each monologue, he openly pans theatre critics who’ve reviewed him and sips one of his (three) martinis from the small table beside his glitter-covered chair. It creates a strategic ambiance that makes you feel more like you’re having drinks with a performer friend and less like you’re in Downstairs Cabaret Theatre’s intimate Windsor Street theater.

It works perfectly for Judd.

He’s also workshopping a new story, with ending yet untold, about a tattoo removal “doctor” he once had who’s now serving time at the Attica Prison. (To find out the rest, audience members have to come back after Judd gets a chance to visit again this month.) It’s a brilliant strategy that allows him to not only test new material, but brings a coincidental local tie to Rochester.

And at the end of the show, it seems that maybe there is an “aha!” moment after all.

Judd teaches his audience, perhaps unintentionally, that great stories seldom stem from perfect, happy lives. It just takes a gifted storyteller like Judd to reach into a heavy moment and pull out the humor.

Adding a shot (or three) of vodka probably doesn’t hurt, either.