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New York Theater

Skin Deep

Jeffrey Essmann is not all that keen on narrative as a literary device, because, as he admits, "all I keep thinking about is nipples." So begins the seemingly confessional "Autobiography: Some of This Is True," the first of six monologues that constitute Essmann's one-man show Skin Deep, part of Dixon Place's Hot! Festival and marking his return to New York after a 10-year hiatus. It functions as part standup routine (he riffs on his parents and their Midwestern quirks), part humorous justification for leaving the city because he was "too weird for TV, too normal to get a grant."

All his characters are seemingly obsessed with the body: Mal's eulogy for his father fixates on the brown suit he's dressed him in for the funeral; Deb is a ditzy blonde who has joined an e-ashram and enjoys Buddhist cybersex; Clive, Lord Thatch-Hewitt, personifies the repressed British imperialist who can't stop stroking all the men he sees; and Vivyen, a self-assured, narcissistic woman with a fashion magazine empire, describes how most people develop desires and expectations beyond their actual attractiveness. Other than wigs for the female characters, Essmann uses no props and doesn't need much to embody these careful character studies. He does it all with perfect detail, particularly through the precision of his hands: Mal's nervous energy is expressed through flamboyant gestures; Deb's constraint through shy fingers.

Though Essmann manages to tread taboo sexual ground -- comically in the final piece, "The Secret Language of Tits," in which a gay man explains how men's well-developed pectorals speak volumes -- he does it with a veracity that never feels gratuitous. But it's in "Vivyen," a monologue taken from a longer piece, The Fashion of Democracy, that he fully drives home his point. In a subtle, flawless impersonation of a know-it-all, fashion-obsessed woman, Essmann has her explain that the "transfiguration of banality is central" to her enterprise. And clearly it's just as essential to Essmann's. He has taken the apparently shallow words and disposable choices of average people and done something all too rare: fashioned them into compelling art.

Presented as part of the Hot! Festival by and at Dixon Place

258 Bowery, NYC.

July 6-21. Thu.-Fri., 8 p.m.

(212) 219-0736 or www.dixonplace.org.

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