Let’s Review: Actor/playwright reveals all in ‘The Darrell Hammond Project’

Darker moments of Hammond’s life excellently portrayed, not overplayed

People who see “The Darrell Hammond Project” at La Jolla Playhouse will discover how the actor turned growing up with a life of lemons into lemonade, and will come to believe that anything is possible.

Hammond co-wrote the play, about his horrific childhood, with Elizabeth Stein. It chronicles the life a young man unable to break free from memories of abuse by his mother. Hammond enters the stage with the carefree air of the “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) star he’s become.

He “voices” some of the characters he’s known for impersonating as the audience’s laughs validate he’s spot-on in mimicking politicians and movie stars.

And then the real work for the actor begins.

On a table is a stack of folders representing all the psychiatrists he’s seen during his lifetime, and he explains each one’s erroneous diagnosis. As Hammond reveals some of the dark things that happened to him, a bright red light fills the stage and he mocks cutting himself. He explains that this was what he did when up against a memory too depressing to focus upon.

The darker moments of Hammond’s life are excellently portrayed, but not overplayed. When describing the enormous amount of drugs he took, his inability to keep a job or have a consistent place to live, his sadness, confusion and distress inhabit his entire body. Yet, like many comedians masking pain, Hammond can throw out a few words and beam a smile when the laughs echo throughout the theater.

It’s easy to relate to Hammond’s humor when he describes incidents at school, with friends, trying out for SNL, and other moments of his life. But when the face full of pain emerges, you can hear a pin drop in the theater.

The production was surely a challenge for Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. How do you watch someone go through such experiences and then say, ‘next scene!’ Yet together, the pair created a show balancing both humor and sadness to tell a poignant story.

I particularly liked the scenic design by Robert Drill and projection design by John Narun. A center table provides a place for Hammond to return for props as he continues his story. A huge cabinet at the back of the stage holds many more items – a Frankenstein figure, a Godzilla statuette, and other mementoes of his life.

Image projections of Hammond’s family, clips from SNL, and some of his most popular impressions help sort out all of what’s revealed, so audiences can come to understand what this incredible actor has survived and achieved. The show contains strong language, mature themes and adult situations. u

IF YOU GO: “The Darrell Hammond Project” runs through March 8 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre, UCSD campus, Tickets from $15 at (858) 550-1010.