By BRUCE DENNILL
Nik Rabinowitz: Work In Progress / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
Work In Progress is a fabulous name for a comedy show. It suggests a sensitive, smart awareness of potential shortfalls in the performer’s material, or even their personality; that there is room for improvement in many facets of what they do or who they are. And it also allows audiences to take the phrase at face value and believe that the comedian may be improvising, and that if the show is not terribly good, it is, after all, still under construction.
All of this is sublimely subverted in Nik Rabinowitz’s latest set, which is as well conceptualised and thought out as it is structured and delivered. It steers clear of pretty much every cliché that riddles the average South African comedy set – politics, car guards and the rest – including instead references to Rabinowitz’s life in particular and heritage in general, as well as gloriously random, apparently stream of consciousness sidebars.
Moving from the wide-eyed shock of massively inappropriate references to his Jewish culture to charmingly mawkish notes on interactions with his children, Rabinowitz gives Work In Progress a pleasing narrative arc, but nothing so boring and traditional as a beginning, middle and end.
He explores the impact of approaching middle age on his body (a lovely bit about hair loss and dubious responses to it). He understands, too, that increasing maturity is affecting the way he regards others and their often complicated conditions (cue a sequence – brilliantly performed – about being asked by a friend to help look for a third party who was feeling suicidal, which is much funnier than that theme suggests). Rabinowitz’s unusual upbringing, with a huge age gap between his parents’ ages and the lingering influence of the Xhosa community around which he grew up, means there is a wealth of already unorthodox anecdotes that he can relate and embellishes.
The combination of these and other threads and themes makes for a set that is often poignant and rather touching, even as the comedian’s confident, gently rude patter continues apace even as you process an emotional moment. In this show, he replicates something like the excellent deadpan self-satire of Jim Gaffigan and other similar performers, where how much a gag or an observation makes an audience laugh is the most valuable consideration, rather than some supposed duty to stir debate or scandalise onlookers.
In that regard, if a one-man comedy show should be judged on how much and how hard an audience laughs – and really, what better scale of measurement can there be in this context? – Work In Progress is a runaway success. A packed house guffawed and belly-laughed from start to finish (and this a 90-minute set), with there being an odd situation in the foyer afterwards as people attempted to recalibrate the way their cheek muscles responded after being stuck in the “smile” position for such a long, unbroken period.
Work in Progress is one of the best sets by a South African comic in the last four or five years.