Stand-up comedy as theater

December 31, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"I keep drifting back into pioneer days, where everyone knows who they are -- survivors. That's it. There's no other choice. Live or die. Life was so much easier then."

-- from "Hitch Up the Mules"

T.P. Mulrooney is a survivor. In the competitive field of stand-up comedy, this clean-cut comic with ink black hair has been laying them in the aisles for 14 years.

And, like the American forebears he salutes in his one-man show, "Hitch Up the Mules," at Slapstix Comedy Club, Mulrooney is a pioneer -- a lone comedian in the wilderness, trying to bridge the frontier separating stand-up comedy from theater.

Although the former Marylander has been a headliner at Slapstix three times before, he is the first solo act the club has ever booked.

He is also the first performer whom Slapstix owner Christopher ++ D. Cahill has held over. Originally booked for a two-week engagement at the end of November, "Hitch Up the Mules" was recently extended through Jan. 15.

The show differs from traditional stand-up comedy in several respects. It has a title, playbill, theatrical lighting, sound effects and slide projections. Many of the slides are from the Mulrooney family album. There's a slide of the young T.P. playing the accordion, a slide of him playing Little League, a family portrait, and a slide of him standing with one of the nuns from his alma mater, St. Agnes School in Catonsville.

In addition, "Hitch Up the Mules" has a central theme: the notion that the survival instinct has been replaced with a new crisis -- lifestyle choices. Or, as Mulrooney puts it at the start of the show, "Man's only natural instinct is survival. If he's not busy surviving day in and day out, then he's not a survivor. . . . So then he has to become something else. Establish a new identity. And that's where the fun starts."

For Mulrooney -- who is often compared to Jay Leno due to his prominent jaw line and engaging manner -- part of the fun is portraying several different characters. For example, there's Joey Bayline, a house-husband and Orioles fan who clips coupons while watching sports on TV, and who imparts wisdom on everything from athletes' salaries to the Colts' move to Indianapolis.

"I'm sure there are probably some nice people in Indianapolis, but God forbid they should ever come to Baltimore and ask me for directions."

Then there's Rick Huktamusky, a loser from Chicago's South Side who shows up for a blind date wearing an orange leather hat with earflaps. He wears it "for style," he explains. "Cuz the style I choose for myself when it's 13 below in Chicago is warm."

The most poignant character Mulrooney portrays is a Los Angeles carjacker who attempts to steal a car from one of the wealthy suburban matrons who -- according to a news item Mulrooney came across -- have begun driving through the tougher sections of town for kicks.

"That scene represents the show," says Mulrooney. "Two lost people, lost in different ways, find something in common." (What they have in common turns out to be soap operas.)

If this sounds pretty serious for a comedy show, well, that's probably because T.P. Mulrooney, 40, is a pretty serious guy. "I see the world as a very difficult place, a very frightening place. That's why I want to find humor," he explained one morning recently.

"It's funny that T.P. has become a comedian because he was always the most serious one in the family," says his older brother, Charlie, 43, a software engineer for TRW in northern Virginia.

When the four Mulrooney kids were growing up in Catonsville and Westminster, the youngest brother, Jack, was considered the family comedian. But Jack, 39, an environmental consultant with Booz, Allen and Hamilton in Silver Spring, recognizes one element of T.P.'s performance as a holdover from childhood. "He'd take on different personalities and be them for a while -- two a day," Jack recalls. "You never knew how to react because it was like, 'Who am I talking to today?' "

Both Charlie and Jack have seen "Hitch Up the Mules" and are not only proud of their brother, they're proud to be included in the show.

The only sibling who hasn't seen it is the baby of the family, Anna Mae Florence, 37, a part-time dietitian in Boise, Idaho. "Anna Mae would be flabbergasted to see herself up on the screen," T.P. says.

"My sister was just the first female I had a communications difference with."

But while Anna Mae might be startled to see a slide of herself as a child projected on stage, she wouldn't be surprised by T.P.'s depiction of her as a little girl who was a saint in her parents' eyes and a devil in the eyes of her brothers. This particular bit was also a regular part of T.P.'s stand-up routine. "Someday it would be nice if I was a stand-up comic so I give my side of the story," his sister kids.

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