The vogue for free expression over the past 30 years has resulted in a lot of people taking off their clothes onstage when they have no business ever being naked except in front of their mothers. Tim Miller is not one of these, which is a good thing for the audience, as he spends one section of his new show, "Shirts & Skin," which opened last night at Woolly Mammoth, naked except for his socks, shoes and a few strategically placed clothespins.
Miller is not only pleasant to look at, he's pleasant to listen to. Though he has an in-your-face history (he was one of the artists who sued the National Endowment for the Arts for denying grants based on what they held were unconstitutional "decency" standards), he's easygoing here, companionable, witty and intelligent as he recounts stories from his life. He never bothers to call overt attention to the red shirt hanging from an onstage clothesline, a visual reference to the bloodstained garment in the production that caused the NEA a fit.
In many ways, Miller's life is the typical one of the smart, passion-starved suburban kid (he's from Whittier, Calif.) who flees home for the bohemian experience. The Sympathetic Teacher (a Chicana lesbian German teacher), the Cruel Political Disillusionment (the murder of San Francisco politician Harvey Milk), the Horrible New York Apartment Building (Santeria devotees leave decapitated animals in the halls) and the Exciting Sexual Encounters (there aren't any unexciting ones) are all here. But Miller's takes on coming of avant-garde age in America are fresh and funny.
As a naif on his first trip to San Francisco, he accepts the offer of a free meal from the Unification Church and ends up a three-hour bus ride away chanting "Win with love" as he plays volleyball. His heart isn't in it. Possibly this has something to do with the meal composed entirely of broccoli that he consumed earlier.
The coming-of-homosexual-age-in-America tales aren't as fresh, but they're still funny, and occasionally poignant. The bawdiest one is an account of Miller's frantic, neurotic interior monologue as he has sex with a man he met on the street: If he does this this time, does that mean he'll be expected to do this every time, and anyway, doesn't he really want to do that?
The show's title is from an account of Miller's hellish gym class days in high school, when the coach would divide the boys into two teams, one of which stripped off their shirts. Already humiliated by being the last one chosen for a team except for a guy with one kidney, Miller is self-conscious and humiliated baring his skinny adolescent chest. But then, in a huddle, he has a moment of revelation: that he will always be "on the team where the boys take their clothes off and get close to other boys."
Miller is generally described as a performance artist, and the performance part of the evening seems to be when, between monologues, he dips and dances and writhes around the stage to hang yet another shirt-with-a-story-behind-it on the clothesline. The artist part is when he talks.
Shirts & Skin, written and performed by Tim Miller, based on his book of the same title. Music, Doug Sadownick. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Aug. 8. Call ProTix at 703-218-6500.