San Diego Union-Tribune, September 25, 1999
Written by Jennifer Poyen, Staff Writer.


In Say Cheese, Phil Johnson's zany monologue about a bizarre audition, the fledgling actor makes a throwaway remark about the once-great director whom he is desperate to impress.

Sir Wilford -- who finds himself casting an astonishingly bad musical -- was a figure in experimental theater in the 1970s when, as Johnson puts it, "experimental theater meant you'd see something you'd never seen before."

It's a strange comment coming near the end of
Lounge Stories, a new production of Johnson's sketches at downtown's Sledgehammer Theatre, since the tales that the San Diego-based performer tells on stage are the stale war stories of performers everywhere. And yet -- not.

Johnson's deliciously parodic style mocks his words with such sly cunning that it's tempting to see them as both stories and "stories." At his best, Johnson is the rare kind of comedian who makes you think: I have never seen anything like this before.

Lounge Stories was developed at the Actors Art Theatre (AAT) in Los Angeles, founded by director Jolene Adams in 1989 as a place for actors to show their stuff and see others' work. In that spirit, a rotating series of monologues by AAT artists is presented as a warm-up for Johnson's two skits as part of the Sledgehammer show.

The Act, draws on the performer's stint at a popular Chicago club. Dressed in a blue faux-velvet jacket and silky black pants, Johnson is a finger-snapping, pandering charmer who sings really bad songs (quite well, thank you) and tells of his lounge-lizard life. He whips his microphone cord like an unruly snake that's ready to pounce. Accompanied on piano by an appropriately lackluster Joe DeMers,Johnson swings, before long, into godawful hip gyrations and finely tuned schmaltz. The writing is often fresh, and his unflagging performance commands attention even when his one-gag joke goes on too long.

The same can be said of
Say Cheese, though on balance it's a better skit, in which Johnson ably impersonates a range of funny characters. The best is Sir Wilford, the unapologetically pompous director who commands a roomful of actors to walk about and spew like volcanoes ("Mountains must move inside of you," he intones). Lounge Stories reads like the juvenilia of an up-and-coming comedic writer-performer. By the time Johnson, the actor, had found his way into Sir Wilford's gloriously bad musical, you could find yourself wondering if there weren't more stinging, less self-conscious stories struggling to get out of this talented performer.