On a bare stage in a dingy, low-ceilinged room, Troy Alan distils his jokes from the old adage of tragedy and time. The New York comic has a strong core plot to Funny Stories About Pain, and for the most part it serves him well. He runs us through a series of tragicomic events from his life. He starts out comparatively mildly, with trivial annoyances, then moves on to more serious events: ten minutes into the show, Alan has fallen off a subway train and has his leg trapped in the gap between the train and the platform. There’s worse to come – far worse – with revelations about his family and his childhood that are genuinely shocking. A couple of simple lighting cues are used to indicate a transition between sections. It’s deliberately theatrical, and it works very well except for the couple of times the cue is late, leaving Alan standing awkwardly waiting for the blackout.
Drawing comedy from such trauma is a tricky challenge. Of course, all of Alan’s stories are ripe targets for dark gruesome humour, and he taps that particular vein without hesitation. But it’s clear that these stories are also personal and true, and here Alan sometimes struggles. He rarely draws a joke against his own emotional vulnerability, choosing instead to punctuate his gags with staccato moments of sombre realism. It’s an approach that could be effective if used sparingly, and it’s clear that Alan has a natural understanding of the pace and pathos of what he’s presenting, but it’s not always successful. Alan’s material is good, but it’s flabby and sometimes directionless. He loses his momentum as often as he gains it, and it feels as if he’s never fully engaged with his tale. He recites it more often than he performs it.
The subject matter is dark – sometimes very dark – but Alan has structured this hour expertly, and he packs it with enough strong jokes that we can navigate the deeper waters. A few of his references are US-specific and are lost on most of us, but they’re incidental to the main story and Alan doesn’t let them trip him up. What’s more challenging is tonight’s audience. There’s no hostility, but they’re a rowdy crowd, and Alan sometimes struggles to keep the story on the rails. There’s regular audience contributions – all well-intended and encouraging, but rarely helpful. Alan spends a bit of time on crowd control, playing verbal audience whack-a-mole. It’s skilfully done. Alan strikes the right balance between appeasement and assertion, and doesn’t allow it to derail his story. These few moments of audience riffing and unscripted material are actually some of the best moments of the show – not because they’re the funniest, but because Alan is at his most relaxed and engaged. Had he managed to maintain that intimacy throughout the show, it would have made for a far more compelling piece.