If you've seen Shear Madness over at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, then you certainly remember John McGivern. He plays Tony Whitcomb, the manically funny hairdresser who eventually becomes one of the suspects in an audience-assisted murder investigation. But it's not just McGivern's centrality in the play that makes him stand out. He also happens to possess a huge dose of comic charisma: You soon find yourself waiting happily, eagerly, for whatever mischief he might make next.
And there's another aspect to McGivern's stage presence: He has the aura of someone whom you've known forever. So even if you missed his appearances on Comedy Central or HBO, you feel, on first seeing him, that he's a familiar TV presence, like Don Knotts or Jason Alexander. That's another McGivern talent: bringing his deja vu with him.
I sat down with McGivern recently in the lobby of the Jaeb Theater to talk about Late Night with John McGivern, the one-man show he'll be presenting Fridays at 10:30 p.m., beginning Aug. 23. He says it's a "really light version" of a longer show, and consists of comedy-based, strict truthfulness on his own life story. Subjects include his family, his years in Catholic seminary studying to become a priest and his return to Tampa after a six-year absence.
He offers an example: "I'll open the piece with a woman who's been in (my) building longer than I think I've been alive, to be honest with you. And you know I came back and she said, "It's so good to see you. Haven't seen you since 1996 and you sure have packed on the pounds.' And then a week later she says, "It looks like you're going bald.' And then she says to me, she says, "And you're so gray!' Well, in two weeks she had said that I was fat, that I was old and that I was bald. Welcome home, you know?"
Other subjects include his mother, his five brothers and sisters and the hopes — serious this time — that he has for his 10 nephews and nieces.
And you can be sure that he'll talk about being gay. McGivern says that he doesn't "have an option" when it comes to revealing his sexual preference on stage. "As my mom would say, people (ask), "What is your son John doing?' and she says, "He's a professional homosexual.'" McGivern laughs. "Because I do make it incredibly — it's right there. And then it's done ... I say at the end of my show, "The sooner we all can begin to realize that what we share, and what is similar is greater than what's not, and the sooner we can all begin to embrace our similarities and truly begin to respect what's different, that's when things get easier.'"
He thinks that Tampa audiences, like audiences generally, have gotten more liberal, but he still remembers being picketed by the Ku Klux Klan at Tampa's gay and lesbian film festival in 1994. "I do a bit about it," he says. "And I've done the bit and mentioned Tampa all over the world. And I'll bring that up again here too."
He can laugh about it now, and seems to mean it when he says "It's all OK."
McGivern is from Milwaukee and only started acting professionally when he was in his late 20s. He was in the seminary until then, where he went directly out of grade school "and thought that's what I'm going to do my whole life."
He did mission work in Mexico, Montana and Detroit but kept putting off ordination as a priest, "and then at the age of 28 I said, I don't want to do this." So he came to Tampa to join his brother, who was then a student at the University of South Florida and began to audition for acting jobs.
The turning point was an internship at the Academy Theatre in Atlanta. He's worked regularly ever since. Sometimes he's performed in out-of-the-way venues — once in Charlotte, N.C., for Central Piedmont Community College, where he did a summer stock series that included Agatha Christie's Mousetrap, Oklahoma and Grease.
Shear Madness, which he first performed in Chicago in 1987, turned out to be just the right fit. He's starred in it all over the country, and eventually became one of its producers. ("I have to cast and market."). He's been writing solo work since 1993, has a twice-a-week radio show in Milwaukee and had a part in the Garry Marshall film The Princess Diaries.
Curiously, he failed, during seven years in L.A., to line up regular TV work (he was almost hired for Third Rock From the Sun). But now, as he approaches 50, he has an idea of what he wants: "If I can do Shear Madness and I can do my solo work, I'm pretty pleased."
McGivern feels that his former goals as a young seminarian aren't completely separate from his present aims as a performer, especially in his solo work. "I think it has a whole lot to do with community and being in front, and sharing something that's integral in everybody's lives," he says. He's particularly proud of a letter he got from a 68-year-old Jewish woman who saw him perform at New York's Public Theater.
"She said, "You know what? I'm not gay, I'm not Irish, I'm not Catholic — and you spoke my life.'"
In addition to touching individuals, he likes the idea that, in his solo work, he makes a community out of strangers. "To sit in a house with 400 people and to feel united is really important," he says.
The comic calls his one-man shows more sit-down than stand-up. "You have to stay with me," he says. "The payoff is at the end. It's not all funny through the whole thing." Above all, McGivern values authenticity on stage, a trait he thinks is innate, not learned. "And I think that plays true in the rest of my life as well," he says. "I mean, ask anyone who knows me really well. I'm not one to be like, "He's bullshitting me.'
"That's just not my way."
Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.