A few years ago, at the age of 24, Brooklyn-born Danny Hoch got the kind of phone call most struggling actors dream of. It was his agent, telling him that the people from “Seinfeld” had called: they wanted Hoch to get on a plane the next morning to tape a guest-starring role on the hit television series.
The thing of it is, Hoch — a mesmerizing and chameleonic stage performer-writer who exploded onto the New York theater scene at age 21 with his Obie-winning one-man show, “Some People” — is decidedly not most young actors. From the very beginning of his career, one got the sense that Hoch wasn’t going to sell his soul to TV anytime in the future. A raucous delight in (and a deep and abiding respect for) non-white urban culture are hallmarks of his work. So is an uncompromising political sensibility, apparently immune to the Faustian bargains of showbiz.
For the Seinfeld episode, Hoch was to play “the pool guy,” a comically annoying attendant who wanted to befriend Jerry. The character’s name — Ramon — made Hoch wary that the producers were after some sort of buffoonish Latino stereotype. They assured him that wasn’t the case (he could even change the name if he wanted), so the next day he found himself sitting at a table with Jerry, Elaine and the gang for a Seinfeld read-through.
Despite previous assurances, the Ramon character was to be exactly what Hoch dreaded. He refused to play it that way, infuriating the cast and producers. Hoch left the show — and the city — on the next available plane. Last March, at the height of the national Seinfeld mania, a piece by Hoch on that experience appeared in Harper’s magazine. It was received by many as a bracing (and hilarious) antidote to the bloated and treacly press coverage the series was getting for its swan song season. Now titled “Danny’s trip to L.A.,” it has worked its way into his new one-man stage show, “Jails, Hospitals & Hip Hop,” which opens at the Actors’ Gang for a 24-performance run through Dec. 13.
Almost all of the characters Hoch inhabits in “Jails” are beautifully realized, startlingly authentic portraits of the kinds of lives we rarely see onstage. The Seinfeld story is the only one in which he steps out of character and speaks to the audience as himself. “That piece does get a lot of attention,” Hoch told The Journal in a recent interview. “After all, it’s sort of the gossipy part of the show, in a way… After the story came out, people were actually in pain about it. For some people, it was like I had committed treason.”
Hoch’s talents may not be suited for the mainstream, formulaic landscape of prime-time television, but they make for electrifying theater. With just a few spare props, a gift for self-transformation and an empathy that is beyond his years, Hoch brings to life an entire rainbow of memorable characters, which range from a white Montana teen-aged boy who manufactures a fantasy alter-ego for himself as a black rap star named Flip Dog, to an embittered corrections officer squirming in a therapist’s office.
To get a rough idea of Hoch’s range and power onstage, picture the sharp, satirical talents and stage presence of Eric Bogosian (to whom Hoch has often been compared). Add to that the morphing skills and political sensibilities of Anna Deveare Smith. Throw in the physical expressiveness and good humor of Lily Tomlin, the searing honesty of Lenny Bruce and the rubbery, expressive face of a young Ed Wynn, and you begin to get the picture.
While Hoch’s boyhood in Brooklyn and Queens included requisite gigs at Hebrew school and Sunday school that culminated in a multicultural, hip-hop bar mitzvah celebration (“my friends and I were break dancing at shul,” he recalls), it was also characterized by an easy familiarity with the hodgepodge of cultures and dialects that surrounded him. As a result, Hoch has a well-developed sense of place that informs his choices. So far, critically acclaimed HBO specials, Obie awards and movie deals have done nothing to diminish it.
Because Hoch attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, “The idea of success was either Broadway, or L.A. So right away, success inherently meant leaving your community. It also means getting a role in a Broadway show that has nothing really to do with the people of New York City, shown to people who aren’t from New York City… What I didn’t see onstage were the kind of people I saw in my own life every day. In the media, they were considered to be on the margins, but not in my neighborhood. You know, I don’t come from a place where 10 Jews sit around a table, deciding about a Latino character. I come from a place where it’s five Latinos, five blacks and one Jew. That’s me.”
“Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop,” directed by Jo Bonney, runs Wed. – Sun. at 8 p.m. at the Actors’ Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Tickets: $25, $10 students, are available through the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre, or by calling (213) 628-2772. Tickets are also available on-line at www.TaperAhmanson.com