The humorist on pain, drinking, and how a dive bar helped cure his depression
Published: February 16, 2011
Marc Unger’s Drinking Up the Pieces
Feb. 17-19 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 20 at 3 p.m. at Theatre Project.
For more information visit theatreproject.org.
One day in the not-so-distant past, the woman Marc Unger had hoped to marry left him unexpectedly, her 3-year-old son in tow. The loss threw him into a deep depression. He retreated to a dive bar in North Baltimore, where he proceeded to throw back large quantities of Tuoca and Cuervo and beer. There he stayed for the next two years, enduring numerous slurred renditions of “Brown-Eyed Girl” and befriending a motley assortment of barflies like himself. And, in this unorthodox fashion, he healed.
“Drinking Up the Pieces,” Unger’s one-man show about these dark days, opens at Theatre Project this week. It’s about the end of a relationship, but not the one you think. “This is not a show about ‘chick breaks guy’s heart,’ because you shouldn’t do that show,” Unger says. “Let Adam Sandler do that movie.” Instead, it’s about the loss of the little boy. He wasn’t Unger’s flesh and blood, but to Unger, he might as well have been. “He was my son,” he says.
Unger first thought of writing a show about this period in his life after telling the story in 2009 as part of the Stoop Storytelling Series. He’s written one-man shows before, as well as a handful of screenplays and a film. And his performance chops include years of standup comedy, acting, and improv—including a stint studying with Second City. Coincidentally, he happened to meet actress and comedy writer Rain Pryor—Richard Pryor’s daughter—who became the show’s director.
Unger recently tossed back a Jack and Diet Coke with a reporter at the watering hole in question, which Unger describes as “the bar from Billy Joel’s song ‘Piano Man,’ if it had been written by Tom Waits.” A man with a mustache tending toward handlebar sat alone nearby, watching college basketball. A poster of a swimsuit model was visible on the wall in the attached liquor store, and a cigar store Indian guarded the bar. Unger says the place—let’s call it “Jimmy’s,” as Unger does—used to have “drop ceilings stained piss yellow,” but has since been renovated.
City Paper: So how did you first start coming to this place?
Marc Unger: I lived in the neighborhood, but literally it was one of those things where when this split happened I just found myself here one night and didn’t leave for two years.
CP: Was it really an every night sort of thing?
MU: Yeah, oh yeah. If I wasn’t on the road for some gig for the night, this is where I was. . . . Depression obviously is a very sad, tragic thing. But as an artist and as a humorist, it’s my job to find ways to bring some levity to that. The show talks about the dive bar culture, the characters that inhabit a place like this. It talks about me taking antidepressants, reading self-help books, all these sort of bullshit things that we do, thinking that this is the cure. Wayne Dyer for 15 minutes, you know?
CP: But in the end you felt like this place is what actually cured you?
MU: Absolutely. Yes. I needed a place to drink and to brood. I couldn’t have even done it in a more upscale place. I would have been too self-conscious. It had to be a place where I was one of many people coping with something. This place is all middle-aged men who are going through divorce, or a second divorce or a third. For me, going to Jimmy’s night after night helped me rediscover who I was basically. A week becomes a month becomes six months becomes a year until eventually we remember that once we existed independent of the incredible hurts that we feel.
CP: Without giving away the show, what kinds of characters did you meet here?
MU: There’s a guy named Corner Bob, who’s a master electrician. He’s nicknamed Corner Bob because he’s been drinking at Jimmy’s for so long. That’s his corner right there. The guy over there with the blond hair, that’s Kevin. He’s a former high school soccer star turned locksmith who has four daughters from three women or three daughters from four women, I forget the math.
CP: Did you find anything funny during that two-year period?
MU: No, that’s the thing. I look back at that period—and there are people here who saw me then. They know the difference. I wasn’t me. I existed. I didn’t live, I didn’t smile really. And I was doing comedy at the time so I would have to go to gigs.
CP: How did you do it?
MU: I was terrible, I was horrible. I mean I’d been a comic for years so I could fake it to some extent, but I wasn’t me. I would cry every night practically.
CP: Is your material usually so intimate?
MU: No. The one-man shows I’ve done before have been personal, but this is the first show that really explores the darkest emotions I’ve ever felt. It’s really tricky. People don’t want to see an hour and 20 minutes of, “I’m in pain! I’m in pain! Oh my God, I’m still in pain!” You can’t do that. So the trick in writing and performing it is the balance.
CP: Do you feel more sensitive about the audience response because it’s so much about your life?
MU: My biggest concern is that somebody will go to the theater and say, “I saw Marc Unger’s life today. It sucked.” Like that’ll be the review. Thankfully up to this point, having done this show a couple of times and seeing, for instance, men come up to me after the show and wanna open their hearts to me, that tells me I’m on the right track. Could it anger somebody? Yeah, you may hear me say things that you don’t like. That’s my job. It’s different than standup. In standup, you’re drink peddling. You could be replaced by a karaoke machine.
CP: So people shouldn’t come expecting to be falling over laughing the whole time?
MU: I hope that people come expecting to be moved in many different ways.
CP: Do you want to have kids?
MU: Yes. And if I’m gonna have them it’s gotta be, like, today. Because I’m like fortysomething. I don’t wanna be the father with the colostomy bag at show-and-tell.
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