For our theater entertainment and edification, Jack Gallagher will again cannibalize his life.
"Cannibalizing" might be too strong, since what Gallagher does is more observation and analysis than ripping something open and eating it raw. So maybe it's more like Gallagher will perform a personal MRI for our benefit when he opens his new show, "Complete and Unfinished," tonight at the B Street Theatre.
"All my stuff is autobiographical, but when I look at this play from a distance, this is me from 5 years old up to 60 and basically the big moments of that journey," Gallagher said recently over lunch near his Land Park home.
Gallagher, a lapsed stand-up comic, has created a series of one-man performance pieces: "Letters to Declan" (1993); "Just the Guy" (2002); "What He Left" (2006); and "A Different Kind of Cool" (2010) all exploring different facets of his life. The last four shows had their world premieres at the B Street Theatre, as "Complete and Unfinished" will.
On stage, he's a storyteller who highlights the comic ironies in his world. But as he's moved from stand-up into narrative, there's more emotional investment because he's talking about his father or his children, along with the goofy things people do at the grocery store.
It's not as if Gallagher has invented a new form of theatrical expression. He wasn't trying to and he hasn't. What Gallagher has done is what the better artists in any genre will do: absorb several influences, sometimes disparate ones, and make them into his own personal thing.
That it's his own life and family he primarily talks about makes it both more accessible and more difficult to do.
Gallagher's bright public persona has been well documented, but he's not always on. When he's out, he's alert to being recognized but happy not to be. Like any writer there's part of him that pulls back, trying to fit in a corner and just see what's happening around him. His wife, Jean Dunn Gallagher, who works for the California School Boards Association, has told him that he becomes very quiet and a little moody when he's in the middle of writing his plays.
The Massachusetts native started professionally as a stand-up comic in the competitive Boston comedy club scene of the early '80s. Gallagher rose to national prominence on the comedy-club circuit, developing a smart style of observational humor that still roots his long-form narrative work today.
You can find video clips of Gallagher being introduced on television shows by legends such as Johnny Carson and Dick Clark. He spent years honing his craft, crisscrossing the country and doing shows.
"I worked really hard and I got really good, but the road is too wearing," Gallagher said. He easily admits he misses the performance part of the job, though.
"I still like doing stand-up, but I don't want to be in Omaha I mean Omaha's a great place, I'm sure but not if you're staying at the Residence Inn for a week with only an hour of work a day," Gallagher said.
The complex responsibilities of family became more dramatically compelling than the temporary exhilaration of landing a joke. He and Jean have been married 33 years and have two sons, Declan, 21, and Liam, 17.
Gallagher's sons figure prominently in his written theater work. "Letters to Declan" started Gallagher on the solo performance path as he began performing the messages about life he wrote to his firstborn son while Declan was still a small child. "A Different Kind of Cool" explored Gallagher's relationship with his younger son, Liam, who is on the autism spectrum.
Though Gallagher said "family stuff" keeps him busy and "it takes a lot to get me out of the house," he'll do a stand-up set two or three times a year at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley.
He'd probably drop into clubs around here occasionally if it made more sense to him. Gallagher knows that comics he came up with and has worked with such as Jerry Seinfeld or Louis C.K. can perform unannounced at any number of clubs in New York and work out 10 or 15 minutes of material to a responsive audience.
He doesn't have the same availability of outlets here, and he also wonders if the current generation of comedy-club audience would get the concerns of someone his age.
"The thing I've noticed, and I talk about a lot in this play, is that I'm going to be 60 this year, and things are slowing down," Gallagher said. "In my business that's old. There are less and less opportunities just because of my age, so I'm looking at that, trying to figure stuff out."
Gallagher has passed through numerous stages in his public life as an entertainer, having moved to Los Angeles where he worked in television and film. There was his wisp of a sitcom "Bringing Up Jack" (1995) and later a recurring role on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (2004-05).
In Sacramento, he has unabashedly leveraged his personality and persona into jobs as the Crystal Ice Cream pitchman and the host of the California Lottery's "The Big Spin." He's been an Emmy Award-winning television host for the PBS series "Money Moves," "Off-Limits" and "Kids, Cash and Common Sense."
He's found a lasting niche in his one-man shows, but the process of writing, rehearsing and then performing the show for six weeks takes its own toll.
"I would like to have Jack do a new show for us every year," said Buck Busfield, who co-directs "Complete and Unfinished" with Jerry Montoya. "We love his work and the audience loves it, but he can't, it's just too taxing, so basically I'm always waiting to ask him for a new show. Finally I felt the time was right."
Busfield and Gallagher agree this piece has offered particular challenges for them that the others have not. "It's different than the others it's not different in that there isn't anybody else on stage, it's just me, but it's hard to describe what it is," Gallagher said. "It feels like with this one I'm taking a bigger chance."
Busfield has complete confidence in Gallagher and himself to put on a good show, but he also knows Gallagher's the one who's out there on stage taking the risk. Busfield's job is to sculpt the material.
"I just start listening and clarifying, so we're clear on the script," Busfield said. "It's applying the basic storytelling form to brilliant content is really what it is. I know as playwright that I'm supposed to delay things. Jack knows how to tell great stories moment to moment. So it's my job to work with that and make sure we have delays and rising action, peaks and valleys and climbing, then crisis and resolution."
While Busfield takes more of an analytical approach to working with Gallagher's stories, the writer-performer seems resigned to giving his audiences emotional honesty.
"I am a one-trick pony you've seen this," Gallagher said. "At some point all I can do is stand naked in front of you because you know everything about me."
COMPLETE AND UNFINISHED
What: The world premiere of Jack Gallagher's latest one-man show
When: Opens 7 p.m. today, continuing at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, through Feb. 24.
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Tickets: $23-$35, $5 students
Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org