Sometimes an artist decides to step out of the spotlight. There are lots of reasons why -- to assess where they are, to remember where they’ve come from, or to get away from the mad social whirl that often goes with the career.
Years spent clawing your way into the spotlight in the first place can take their toll, too. Especially if your path there was harder than most.
Take Jimmy Smallhorne. It’s a few years since the Dublin-born writer and performer scalped two U2 concert tickets in Dublin to buy his plane fare to the U.S.
But the freshness of that story and the sights and sounds that came after it haven’t diminished, and when he decides to tell his own story, he tells it so insightfully it’s like you’re right there alongside him for the ride.
Watching on stage you quickly realize that like many artists, Smallhorne’s biggest critic appears to be himself. Loose limbed and hyper focused, sometimes he struts and sometimes he curls up into a defensive ball, but there’s nothing good or bad you can say to this man that he hasn’t already said to himself. That’s what makes him a spellbinding stage presence.
As he recalls in his new show, The Resurrection of Jimmy Smallhorne, currently showing at Punch/Wined Up in New York, he first arrived in the Bronx with just over $100 to his name and a fighting spirit. Soon after, he was working for an Irish construction outfit and becoming a founding member of the now legendary Bronx Irish Theatre Company.
Smallhorne’s efforts eventually lead to a screenplay and the starring role in 2X4, a film that ended up winning Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.
It was a heady ascent for a talented young working class lad who had once been temporarily homeless back in Dublin. Half the success of his film career was that it had happened at all, in fact.
In 2010 Smallhorne is still a charismatic and all-electric stage presence, and the surprise of his sudden comeback appearance in The Resurrection of Jimmy Smallhorne is shared by the performer himself, because after a decade eluding the spotlight, he’s the person who’s most surprised to find himself back in front of an audience.
It’s not a seamless reintroduction, though. Known best as an actor and a performer, some may be surprised to hear he’s taking to the stage this time as a standup, but that’s the format of his new show.
Being Irish, the material is richer and stranger than your average comedian’s. Smallhorne remembers the sights and sounds of the Dublin of his childhood, the local women who were his heroes, his home life in Ballyfermot and some of the tough breaks that shaped his character.
If those were his only themes the show would take flight immediately. But since his show is still very much a work in progress it’s often raw and halting, with the performer visibly uncertain at times how his material is connecting with the audience.
Twice during a performance last week Smallhorne stopped the show to assess it. But thankfully there’s so much material in The Resurrection of Jimmy Smallhorne that there’s an inevitability that some of it will connect, and connect it does.
In this over-scripted era of fake reality shows and talent contests, there’s something incredibly brave about an artist with the courage to find his voice and make his stand in such an intimate and unscripted manner. At times this freewheeling approach works, but at other times it makes the show lose its focus.
On the night we attended the show was an immigrant’s tale, an obviously unscripted performance that finally found its feet when Smallhorne recounted a trip he made to the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan, a visit that eventually led him to the final resting place of the Patron Saint of immigrants Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American to be canonized. In her immigrant’s journey Smallhorne saw his own, and every American’s.
Another luminous moment happens when he recalls how hard he’d wished to make a film and his own astonishment when it finally happened.
There’s enough passion and smarts in this performer to carry 100 films. He’s back at last to remind you of that fact.
The Resurrection of Jimmy Smallhorne is playing on Monday nights at Punch/Wined Up, 913 Broadway. For tickets call 212-673-9333.