By Samuel L. Leiter
September 22, 2023: Perhaps because of theatre economics, the solo show phenomenon continues to grow, sometimes with actors of prominence, sometimes with those you’ve never heard of. Doing a one-person show can be an excellent way to gain attention, as witness the abundant turnout every year for the United Solo Festival, its 15th season currently in high gear. For it, mostly unknown performers appear in tiny venues doing low-budget, often well-attended, but very limited runs of one-person plays they not only star in but, typically, have written themselves.
Thomas Sweitzer’s 20 Seconds—winner of the 2022 Capital Fringe Festival for Best Solo Performance—could easily have been a United Solo contribution were it not for its elaborate physical and technical elements. Instead, this earnest, if middling, overproduced, hour-and-a-half exercise, subtitled “A Play with Music,” is receiving a longer, albeit still limited, run at the Irene Diamond Theatre, the largest of the several venues at the prestigious Pershing Square Signature Center. Given the disappointingly sparse attendance in the capacious auditorium at the preview I saw, this may not have been the wisest decision. Sweitzer, to his credit, gives as much of himself as he would to a full house, but his show, for all the energy and goodwill it expends, lacks the personal and theatrical magnetism to draw in larger crowds.
Sweitzer, of whom I doubt many readers know much, is a proficient singer, pianist, and actor. As his unusually detailed Playbill bio explains, he made his mark as a music therapist when he founded a non-profit organization called A Place to Be (which leads the list of the show’s multiple producers); judging by the applause when it was mentioned onstage, A Place to Be has a fan base.
20 Seconds is Sweitzer’s rambling, hopefully uplifting account of how he found personal salvation through music after growing up as a chubby loner in a dysfunctional middle-class family (aren’t they all?) in Altoona, PA. Its title refers to a lesson he learned about how long to hug his difficult dad to make a true emotional connection, or the least amount of time he could spend on the phone with him so long as he at least bothered to call.
Sweitzer introduces us to the many problems faced by his alcoholic dad (including schizophrenia, OCD, and depression), and to his similarly troubled, overweight, Italian mom, whose beloved meatballs (the show was previously called Meatballs and Music) and multiple heart failures are a running thread. He tells of his troubled boyhood (when he was bullied as a “fat faggot”), of how he found his life’s purpose through a church music teacher, of his education as a gifted theatre student and subsequent career as a theatre professor, and of the various hardships—mostly related to his aging parents’ health issues—he went through before finding his niche as a music therapist. Apart from reporting the homophobic slur aimed at him, and a story about his obsession with a handsome, accomplished, boyhood friend, he avoids discussing his sexuality and romantic life.
A youthful, average-looking guy of 51 (b. 1972), Sweitzer is costumed by Emilee McVey-Lee in gray slacks, sneakers, and a horizontally striped polo shirt that helps heighten his boyishness. Enthusiastically directed by Jeremy Scott Blaustein (also credited with “developing” the work), he bounds around within Lindsay Fuori’s extensive set dominated by a raised platform with a red plush carpet on which sits a homely couch placed before large upstage windows set into a wall covered by tasteless floral wallpaper. Overhead float a number of pictures displaying mildly cartoonish images of local sites, like the Methodist church near his home. A spinet, to whose ivories Sweitzer has frequent recourse, is at our left. If ever a solo play was diminished by scenic overkill on a stage far larger than its material needs, 20 Seconds is it.
Over the course of 26 scenes, differentiated by lighting cues (as designed by James Roderick), Sweitzer shifts voices and mannerisms to encapsulate 14 characters (including not only a parrot but himself as a kid and an adult), some for only a few lines. He usually employs a single prop, like a baseball cap to suggest his dad, an apron for his mom, and glasses with an ornate neck attachment for the kindly music teacher who, playing “Amazing Grace,” introduces him to music. Sound effects (created by Bill Tole) come fast and furious, usually to accompany and accentuate some physical action.
Frequently, Sweitzer sings snatches of his own expository lyrics to music he composed; I have to confess that none of the generic tunes or lyrics challenge Stephen Sondheim, so it’s fortunate there weren’t more of them. Which is not to deny that Sweitzer is an accomplished singer and musician, often pounding the keys while standing.
Sweitzer does a decent job of capturing his autobiographical selections, but the material, for all its sincere inspirational goals, is not especially interesting, illuminating, unique, funny, or, sad to say, inspirational. His acting covers the spectrum from buffoonery to sentimentality to operatic Weltschmerz, but the personalities he introduces are mundane, and, occasional ripples of laughter aside, the comedy tends toward flatness.
A stripped down, shorter show would help 20 Seconds immeasurably. For now, all one can do is hug Sweitzer for 20 seconds and let him know how much we appreciate his good intentions.
Pershing Square Signature Center/Irene Diamond Theatre
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through October 21, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniel