Comedian puts ‘First Day Off’ to work
Some people seem almost magnetically attracted to life’s oddities: They pull down a series of weird jobs, fall in love with just the wrong person, have family members engage in insane behavior. Other people are able to turn the routine into the compelling by the skewed way they look at things.Brian Finkelstein has both characteristics.As a younger man, Finkelstein took a one-night trip to Tijuana. It was six weeks later that he finally crossed back over the border into the States. A profound romance of his life paired Finkelstein, a New York state Jew, with a Muslim woman from India; that relationship ended with Finkelstein witnessing his beloved marrying her cousin in a wedding the newlyweds’ parents arranged.Those two incidents made up Finkelstein’s first show, 2003’s “Same as it Ever Was.”
Finkelstein remembers, as a kid, his mother telling him about a fire at a neighbor’s house. Eventually, the rest of the story was leaked into young Brian’s ears: The fire had been started by Brian’s father, a New York City cop, who was exacting revenge over a stolen bicycle.Finkelstein once worked at Kiehl’s, an old skin-care products store in New York. One of life’s mundane details, until Finkelstein goes breathless in recalling the employment as “the most perfectly run job I’ve ever had, a Utopian workplace. I’d rather work there than perform.” Despite that preference, Finkelstein wrapped the fire story and the Kiehl’s episode into the one-person show “Montana,” which also included a love story set in Montana.Finkelstein’s latest show, “First Day Off in a Long Time,” centers on his years volunteering for a New York suicide hotline. The volunteer work began as a way to get college credit, but Finkelstein found right away that he enjoyed it. The six-month commitment became a four-year stretch, from 1991-95, in a position that almost always burns people out in a year or less.When Spalding Gray died in January 2004 – having failed to call the hotline, his body was found in New York’s East River, a presumed suicide – Finkelstein began piecing together his past experience and reflections on the deceased monologuist.
“I wanted to talk about Spalding Gray,” the 37-year-old Finkelstein said. “He committed suicide, and he was a big hero of mine. So it’s about Spalding Gray, but I didn’t want to hit people who didn’t know him over the head.”In the show, Finkelstein sits at a desk and tells his story – a style borrowed from Gray. The title is also taken from Gray; they are the opening words to Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia.” Otherwise, Gray remains in the background. Half of “First Day Off” is centered on the training process for suicide hotline work; the other half is about Finkelstein’s last hour at the job, when a young woman, Amy, calls in. The other character is Glen, the boss who, in Finkelstein’s writing process, came to resemble the Dude from the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski.” (Though, in most un-Dude-like fashion, Glen threatened to sue Finkelstein if he didn’t stop doing the show; Finkelstein responded by changing the character’s name.)Finkelstein began performing “First Day Off” at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade in September; it earned best monologue honors from Time Out New York.
If he does another show, Finkelstein can certainly draw on his college experience. After that last night at the suicide hotline, he dropped out of Queens College – one class shy of graduating. He embarked on a career in stand-up, improv theater and directing, but he attended graduation to see his friends get diplomas. The identity of the commencement speaker – Jerry Seinfeld – seemed a hint that he made the right choice.”I tool that as a sign,” Finkelstein said. “Which sounds ridiculous. At the time, I thought it meant something.”Looking back, I should have taken the class.””First Day Off in a Long Time” shows at 7 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Thursday and at 4 p.m. Saturday in The Tent at Wagner Park.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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