David Lee Nelson is no stranger to South Carolina. A graduate of the College of Charleston, this is the New York-based comedian’s third time performing at Piccolo — he previously brought “Status Update” and “Skinny White Comics.” This time he’s turned his attention to a more sensitive topic: Politics.
“The Elephant in My Closet,” Nelson’s latest one-man show, chronicles his journey from being raised a hardcore Republican to eventually voting for Barack Obama, and the uncertainty he feels about whether to tell his father. Part history class, part memoir, he deftly weaves his knowledge of American history in with autobiographical stories from his own life.
The set is sparse. Nelson sits behind a lone desk with a few notes in front of him while photos are projected behind him. It feels like a class presentation, and for some of the show it is, as he takes the audience through a brief history of the Republican Party. But even when discussing the drier historical details, he commits so fully it’s hard not to just go along for the ride. By the time he gets to Reagan, his passion is so contagious that it’s easy to understand why Republicans hold the man in such high regard, regardless of one’s politics.
Most of the show focuses on growing feelings of confusion and frustration, but Nelson is a comedian first and foremost, and his self-deprecating tone alleviates the most cynical diatribes. The show’s beauty lies in his ability to poke fun at both sides of the political aisle, even though we know he’ll ultimately go the way of the donkey. Sarah Palin provides an easy target for more than a few jokes, but she’s presented as no worse than the die-hard liberals who pigeonhole all Southern Republicans as uncivilized ignoramuses. It’s not a political screed — Nelson still seems to have great respect for Republicans, even though he’s now changed sides — as much as it’s the story of one man’s philosophical evolution.
The conceit for “The Elephant in My Closet” promised by its title is that “coming out” as a member of a certain political party carries the same weight as coming out as gay. Though this seems at first to be insensitive at best and downright offensive at worst — has anyone ever been driven to suicide simply for holding certain political beliefs? — it’s a testament to Nelson’s performance that, by the end, the comparison feels earned.
His father’s devotion to the GOP is presented as so entrenched that one gets the impression that an admission of “switching teams” could destroy their relationship. The final moments feel undercooked, perhaps because Nelson only came out to his father two months ago. Even so, the show is an entertaining reminder that blood runs thicker than ideology, and the best opinions are those that leave room for discussion.
“The Elephant In My Closet” is part of Piccolo Spoleto’s Stelle Di Domani theatre series. Remaining shows are 8:30 p.m. May 30;6 p.m. May 31;9:30 p.m. June 1;6 p.m. June 2;7:30 p.m. June 3;9 p.m. June 5;8 p.m. June 8 and 9.