NYC’s most surprising and compelling theatrical event has to be the current Audible Theater production of Darrell Hammond’s “CRAY” at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theatre off-Broadway. Based on his hit memoir, “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem,” the 80-minute show is a harrowing, yet entertaining, piece of theater that delivers both laughs and shock, keeping the audience mesmerized and on the edge of their seats.
Written by Hammond and New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth Stein—and directed by Tony winner Christopher Ashley—the play takes us through Hammond’s life – from a tough childhood to his start as a young comic to eventual stardom via his Bill Clinton impressions on Saturday Night Live (Hammond is the show’s longest continuous cast member.) We learn how he honed his craft (as a voice actor on radio shows, with gigs in the service sector, and other jobs where he was able to observe and study different people) and are treated to glimpses of his best-known and most beloved impressions.
Alongside tales from his glamorous career, Hammond also reveals the tragic details of his troubled personal life: The crippling fear he has battled his whole life, the drinking that started as a teen, the self-harm that developed from despair, the progression to hard liquor and crack cocaine as an adult—and the eventual rehabs and multiple hospitalizations. “From the crack house to the White House to the nuthouse,” he quips and reveals that he’s been seen by forty psychiatrists, many of whom make cameos in a show where he plays sixty-plus parts.
Hammond has an easy conversational style that can be deceiving. He goes without the artificial theatricality that performers can sometimes force in one-person shows, opting for a more natural cadence and voice that feels intimate and unassuming/reassuring. But this is all part of his art because what is beneath this rather understated demeanor is a show, beautifully directed by Ashley, that is solidly structured to take us on what is, at times, a gasp-inducing, astounding journey of a life dominated by mental health issues.
Part memoir, part detective story, the audience follows as psychiatrist #40, eventually discerns that Hammond’s extreme anxiety and erratic behavior stem from unresolved trauma which he has buried deeply and suppressed for over fifty years. The comic resists at first. Unraveling the past will require a significant investment of time and psychoanalysis. The shrink, never missing a beat, reminds him, “This is costing you $3,000 a day.” Not surprisingly, it is the doctor who is the show’s most fleshed-out and fully-developed character and the two eventually develop trust and a rapport.
Hammond’s performance is extraordinary in its raw vulnerability. His face is a canvas for the agony and grief of what he has silently endured—but in that pain, we also see the resilience and hope that recovery brings. His story serves as an inspiration for others struggling with mental health challenges, even those in seemingly hopeless situations like his own. As Hammond concludes the show by confronting (and burying) the monsters of his past, both performer and audience leave the theater with a shared catharsis.