Theater Review - Dad's Garage regular exposes himself in VIP Room

Playwright Mike Schatz lets it all hang out in fun, revealing new work

Early in his autobiographical play VIP Room, Mike Schatz considers Atlanta's reputation as the city with the highest number of strip clubs per capita in the world. The actor, musician and playwright delivers an almost Walt Whitmanesque rhapsody on our multitudinous titty bars, from such famous nightspots as the Cheetah to the 'jack shacks' along Cheshire Bridge Road to the Oasis Good Time Emporium: 'whole emporium' Schatz breathes with both irony and ardor.

In its world premiere production at Dad's Garage Theatre's Top Shelf, VIP Room focuses less on the entire city's g-string-obsessed character than the psyche of one customer with a handful of greenbacks. The theatrical self-portrait doesn't go as deep as the material deserves, but VIP Room remains a funny and mercilessly candid show thanks to Schatz's willingness to expose himself.

Schatz claims to have only slightly fictionalized the play's events, which include his awkward early encounters with women to marrying and having two daughters. His adjustment to grown-up responsibilities coincides with a compulsive attachment to exotic dance clubs. Alison Hastings plays all of the other characters, including Schatz's loving, long-suffering wife as well as his favorite stripper, who has the stage name 'Cheyenne.' Schatz talks about his success as a voiceover artist, which includes a recurring role on Cartoon Network's 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force.' At one point, he repeats a Motorola script with mounting enthusiasm while Cheyenne gives him a lap dance.

A big guy with five o'clock shadow and an untucked shirt, Schatz looks like a laid-back dude with plenty of appetite and testosterone. He's also plagued by anxieties. After 9/11, he views all Muslims with paranoia while hoarding water and duct tape at home. At one point, Cheyenne, costumed as a cop, rubs a prop handgun between her legs and then places it to his mouth. The next morning he freaks, "I've got chlamydia all over my face!" Later, Schatz describes becoming hooked on Xanax and Ambien, which leads to awkward moments such as waking up in a fireplace.

Schatz acknowledges so many personal flaws and weaknesses that the central strip-club dynamic comes across as one symptom of a deeper problem that doesn't go fully explored. At times, the confessional work lapses into self-absorption and misses some opportunities for drama. As one of Cheyenne's regulars, Schatz and the stripper fall into a parasitical relationship of false intimacy that deserves more development. Hastings conveys the wife's anger and frustrations with sensitivity, but we learn little about the wife beyond her feelings for her husband.

Schatz is a likeable performer with the timing and self-deprecating one-liners of a practiced stand-up comedian. Like 2010's Griefers, another Dad's Top Shelf original, the raunchy, insightful comedy depicts a young father grappling with immature pastimes and grown-up concerns. Seth Rogen could star in the film versions of both plays.

Directed by Dad's Artistic Director Kevin Gillese, VIP Room asks whether a man can become addicted to strip clubs without resolving the question. That shouldn't be considered a call to hang out at strip clubs in the name of 'research' though.

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