Brave one-man show airs vulnerabilities, frailties

No one could claim Corey Fischer isn’t expressive in “Lightning in the Brain.” Photo by Ken Friedman.

No one could claim Corey Fischer isn’t expressive in “Lightning in the Brain.” Photo by Ken Friedman.

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆]

Any solo performance requires a modicum of courage.

Performing a one-man show that reveals the frailties of 71 years of life takes a special kind of bravery.

I watched Corey Fischer present that level of valor the other night as he world-premiered “Lightning in the Brain” — a retrospective of his life — at The Marsh San Francisco.

For an hour, he was above all vulnerable.

Open. And honest.

He showed even more of those qualities in a 15-minute post-show conversation with his director and friend, Naomi Newman, who’d co-founded A Traveling Jewish Theatre (ATJT) in 1978 with him and Albert Greenberg.

In his monologue cum song-and-dance act, Fischer exposes his fears about aging (including two scary seizures — what his doctor had likened to “lightning in the brain”).

He begins by talking about forgetting, but soon dives into what he remembers.

The theatrical memoir — at once dramatic and funny, and often universal — is like a locomotive that stops at stations where mature (and immature) love and lust, experiments with drugs, and sundry adventures in New York and Hollywood and Europe are examined.

Through spoken word, body movements (with especially effective use of his hands) and narrative songs.

Heightened with accents.

Yiddish, for instance. And his Turkish neurologist’s inflections.

Fischer spends some time mourning the demise of ATJT, an experiment that had thrived in Los Angeles and San Francisco until 2012 — a troupe that had fused intensely dramatic and humorous storytelling with singing, puppetry and vaudevillian schtick.

Plus Jewish sensibilities.

Fischer, a thin, white-haired, white-goateed guy who towers over his audience at 6 feet 7, not only performs “Lightning,” he wrote it.

With Newman’s 18-month developmental help.

It’s accompanied by recorded music showcasing Ross Gualco, the show’s musical arranger, on keyboards and John Hoy on guitar and bass.

Fischer — clad in earth tones (light trousers, a floppy brown shirt and a gray vest) — uses only one prop in this, his fourth solo piece: A tired stool with a worn top.

Could that be symbolism?

The performer, who’d worked with The Committee, a legendary improv group, has appeared in films such as “5-Year Engagement,” “Funny Lady” and “M*A*S*H,” as well as many television shows.

Fischer remembers his mother, who, he notes, “got sidelined by The Great Depression — and a few small ones of her own.”

And the first book he read, Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” which spurred him to ask his parents to explain the word “lynch.”

And being torn between evolving as an intellectual who dissects the creative process with his buddies and “selling out” by accepting commercial gigs (including a “skin flick, [which is] tame by today’s standards”).

He sings — with pathos — original material about “traveling with ghosts on a road trip through the past.”

And one folk classic, “Freight Train,” citing added lyrics that look at “turning the present into the past” and “memories [that are] rolling back along those guitar-string tracks.”

He reminisces about moments involving the talents of Theodore Bikel, Pete Seeger and Danny Kaye.

And chats about recent binge-watching to escape unwanted feelings.

Corey Fischer and Naomi Newman engage in conversation after “Lighting in the Brain” opening. Photo by Nancy Fox.

Corey Fischer and Naomi Newman engage in conversation after “Lighting in the Brain” opening. Photo by Nancy Fox.

I found the on-stage conversation particularly instructive.

With Newman labeling solo pieces as “the most intimate you can be with the audience.”

And Fischer focusing on memory loss and dealing with the uncertainty of having any creativity left.

Does “Lightning” have weaknesses?

For sure.

Fischer’s vocal chops have become a tad strained and fragile, his range limited.

His exaggerated facial expressions at times seem like caricatures — or woeful — and bring to my mind, despite being radically different, old ladies who want to look young so much they apply way too much lipstick and eye shadow.

Yes, the often choppy “Lightning in the Brain” definitely needs work.

But that’s okay, since Fischer’s life is obviously still a work in progress so the play certainly can be that, too.

I’d frequently enjoyed seeing the performer when he starred with A Traveling Jewish Theatre. Maybe someday I’ll add “Lightning” to my list of personal favorites.

“Lightning in the Brain” plays at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St. (at 22nd), San Francisco, through July 9. Performances, 5 p.m. Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets: $20 to $35; $55 to $100, reserved. Information: (415) 282-3055 or

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About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →