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Nick Ullett on why dying is easy and comedy is hard

October 11, 2010

“A one-man show is a strange creature. Unless you’re a minor celebrity,” argues Nick Ullett, “it’s hard to find a future for it and to find someone to book it.” Ullett’s one-man show Dying Is Easy…Comedy Is Hard is on stage at the Matrix Theatre for three more Mondays, including tonight.

“Nick Ullett isn’t as important as Mark Twain?” he asks. “I’ve begged the Texas Board of Education to add me to their text books.”

 Such is the comedy of this British ex-pat who started this project some 30 years ago at Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. “I had just seen Spalding Gray do Swimming to Cambodia [which won Gray an Obie award]. That’s terrific,” I said, “but I do that at dinner! Someone said that I actually should try doing it. So I put together autobiographical pieces about coming to America as an immigrant. I had a load of material after working on it a few months. The problem was, once I started it, you knew what was coming. There was hardly any dramatic arc in it.”

Ullett performed it a couple times for benefits, including at his mother-in-law’s 13th Street Repertory Company in New York. (Ullett is married to actor Jenny O’Hara.)

“In the ‘90s I decided to revive it because I had just got over having cancer for 13 months. I began working with Rick Podell on a movie. When we finished we turned to my autobiographical piece and worked the cancer into it to give it a dramatic arc. Once we did that, it was terrific except the week before we opened the cancer came back.”

Accordingly, Ullett had to change the ending. “Fox TV had us write a pilot. It got quite complicated, so I dropped it. I went back into chemotherapy and had a bone marrow transplant. Once that was over, we put the show back together again.”

 Twists. Turns. Life. More delays, in essence. “So, a couple of years ago I revived the whole thing with Lisa James, a wonderful director and friend. She worked a lot at the Matrix [Bold Girls]. We put it together for Winterfest two years ago at EST.”

Within the new piece, Ullett includes historical artifacts, like Lenny Bruce. “I did it at my tennis club with a bunch of old Jewish guys. [Matrix theatre producer] Joe Stern saw it and encouraged me to do it at the Matrix. That was a couple of years ago but I was working too much to do it.”

When Stern’s and Ullett’s paths crossed early this year, “He tore into me! ‘I offered you a theatre! What kind of actor are you!?’” Ullett laughs. “So I figured it was time.”

Stern agreed to give Ullett five Mondays. “He even threw the Matrix’s publicist at it so some people showed up. I’ve gotten remarkable reviews, and for an Englishman to blow his own horn takes a lot, you know.”

The cancer, he says, is woven in such a way that it’s almost imperceptible. “It is, in its own way, a very upbeat show.”

The Matrix Theatre 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90046-7488
(323) 852-1445

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