A comedy about the young & the hairless

Jeff Gandell’s Fringe Festival hit The Balding gets a remount at Mainline Theatre this week.

Jeff Gandell

Balding is supposed to be an old person’s dilemma.

But Jeff Gandell is one of those guys who found his own hair calling it quits early in the game — before he had a girlfriend, before he had a writing career, before he had something to call his own.

He was 20, and still a virgin. So Gandell set out to lose his v-card before he lost his hair. He chronicled his wayward youth in a solo piece called The Balding, which, following a successful run during the 2013 Fringe Festival, picked up a nomination for the Just for Laughs Best Comedy Award. Now, the local writer and storyteller is renewing the show about his balding pate at Mainline Theatre.

There have been sadder personal journeys to tell, but Gandell’s is one that is relatively universal. How do you grow up when you’re losing your footing, and your hair?

“When I was going bald, at least, and it’s probably the same for most men, you’re just pretending that it’s not happening, hence the combover,” Gandell says. “It’s a tough thing. You’re losing a piece of your anatomy.”

Our hero, Jeff, weaves obsessing over his balding with wistful and comical episodes: the aspiring writer pines after an unavailable best friend, drinks and drives and eventually embarks on a sweetly sexy affair with an older woman. He lives at home and disappoints his parents — and family pet — when he fails spectacularly at handling the arrival of a skunk.

Gandell (who “daylights” as an English lit professor at Dawson College) had always wanted to write, and his reflections could have made for a thoughtful post on the youthful, zeitgeist-y Thought Catalog, or a sympathetic community contributor post on BuzzFeed with requisite Larry David GIFs (“17 Ways You Know You’re Balding”).

But he opted to perform his stories rather than simply write them down.

“Sending them out and getting them published is a huge pain in the ass, because you’re relying on other people’s tastes,” he deadpanned. “Which is unfortunate, y’know, because people don’t have taste.”

In putting himself on the stage, where he has editorial control over his stories, Gandell found he liked the immediacy of having an audience.

“To be perfectly honest, I’m not concerned whether my stories are funny or not, I just want them to be entertaining and I want people to like them,” says Gandell.

He honed his stage chops improvising and telling stories at Confabulation events (run by Balding director Matt Goldberg), and has become something of storytelling impresario himself by operating Yarn, a monthly show that mixes spoken non-fiction and fiction tales.

Gandell is a low-key performer, wearing his everyday jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt to play himself, but doing little to create dynamic portrayals of the other characters. Quirky singing numbers punctuate the storytelling to punch up the energy and give the former rock ‘n’ roll singer an outlet to belt out some songs. You’re meant to laugh rather than be wowed by his singing prowess.

The Balding, take two, promises a more sophisticated performance overall, though the singing remains.

“I think I’ve evolved as a performer, and in revisiting it, I’m able to embody some of the emotions in a more effective and economical way,” Gandell explained. “Some of the things I tried to convey through words last time, I’m trying to convey through the tone of my voice, action or facial expressions.”

Part of that is no doubt thanks to his performing a new work at the debut Solos Theatre Festival last fall. Danger Unit is a semi-autobiographical tale of a 10-year-old kid spooked by the nightly news into becoming a vigilante crimefighter. Gandell will remount Danger Unit at this year’s Montreal Fringe, then tour The Balding to the Regina, Winnipeg and Calgary fringe festivals.

Gandell now has two solo shows, a writing career and a theatrical curation gig to call his own. When the summer winds down, he’ll be taking a step back from the personal to script an ensemble play or television show. ■

The Balding runs at Mainline Theatre (3997 St-Laurent) from March 19-23, 8 p.m. (2 p.m. on Sunday), $12/$10 for students, seniors & QDF members. The March 19 performance is sold out.

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