Laurence Fishburne’s solo show somehow needs more Laurence Fishburne

NEW YORK — In his new solo show “Like They Do in the Movies,” acclaimed actor Laurence Fishburne promises a vulnerable evening of storytelling about his family, his purpose and the people who influenced his career. In actuality, he spends it blurring anecdotes about those creative origins with vignettes starring memorable strangers. Some stories are true, some are fiction, some dwell in the murky middle.

He performs all with the precision you’d expect of such an impeccable talent, but the double act — of pulling us into his autobiographical story and then keeping us at arm’s length — is puzzling. Most of us have already spent a lifetime watching him embody others. “Like They Do” is precious time with just him. Why waste it?

End of carousel

There is nothing fantastical about the physical presentation. Scenic designer Neil Patel never adorns the blunt, oblong Perelman Performing Arts Center stage with more than a simple desk and a chair or two. Behind Fishburne, an illuminated frame — which chummily mirrors a movie theater screen — floats just above the stage floor. Aside from images of Fishburne’s ancestors, which are sometimes projected, the rigidness of it all does nothing to warm us to his story. The theatrics are reserved solely for the thespian.

Fishburne powers through the dense volume of speech like the charmster he is. He opens the show by detailing his childhood years, toggling between his mentally unstable force of a mother, Hattie, and boisterous Casanova of father, Big Fish. Their eccentricities, and perhaps a pinch of Hattie’s projected fantasies of being a performer, drive Fishburne’s involvement in the dramatic arts.

Fishburne remains spirited and tactile; we see him touching, stroking, lifting objects that aren’t actually present. He is generous with his affability, always asking the audience how we’re doing and softening any TED Talk didacticism with “Reading Rainbow” coziness. We are his friends, his family, even his “baby” for these two hours and 20 minutes. Fishburne keeps up this para-familiarity even when dipping into harder truths, most notably that he was sexually abused by Hattie as a child. Never one to keep audiences perturbed for too long, he repeatedly stopgaps staggering revelations like this with a pacifier: “More on that later.”

“More” is truly the operative word. Because these are not short spews of text Fishburne has penned for us; they are run on sentences and legato soliloquies. Mercifully, director Leonard Foglia (Fishburne’s longtime collaborator) keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, but the challenge is evident. Case in point, at the performance I attended Fishburne called out to a stage manager in the shadows for his next line more than once.

He becomes different races and ages, adopting novel dialects and cadences like the great monologists before him: Whoopi Goldberg, John Leguizamo, Anna Deavere Smith, all of whom Fishburne thank in the show’s program. During a scene involving one of those side characters, he becomes Joseph, a man who withstands unthinkable hardship while trying to escape New Orleans for Baton Rouge during Hurricane Katrina. In real life, Fishburne was a French Quarter resident in 2005, and has fundraised for post-hurricane relief. In another scene, Fishburne becomes Marcus, an American expat in Australia who proudly owns a brothel, traffics in pleasure and marries a beautiful sex worker. In real life, one of Fishburne’s daughters, Montana, worked as a sex worker and adopted the name Chippy D for her adult films. These are lush, thoughtful portrayals, but talent is no longer something he has to prove. And presumably he has some connection to these tales, but Fishburne never makes it clear.

As the play reaches its conclusion, the real Laurence Fishburne returns to us, asking permission to delve back into the story of his parents (as if we haven’t been telepathically begging him to). As he breaks down Hattie’s mental disorder, he descends into a deep squat, and then even lower, sitting cross-legged on the stage floor. He brings us closer to eye level, no longer a Hollywood star or theater titan, but a son enraptured by memories of his complicated, impossible, formidable mother.

That initial pledge of nonstop vulnerability is not completely fulfilled, but Fishburne has poured out a bit of his heart and channeled the stories of others, exactly like he’s always done in the movies.

Like They Do in the Movies, through March 31 at Perelman Performing Arts Center in New York. Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission. pacnyc.org.

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