“Scruncho: All I Needed Was a Hug” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

No. “Scruncho” isn’t a new breakfast cereal. Or a candy bar with nuts. Or even a way of hiding when someone’s looking for you.

“Scruncho” is a nickname Anthony McKinley acquired as a kid – we get the feeling it wasn’t complimentary – and he decided to keep it when he grew up and became a comedian. This spring, while he’s still being pretty funny, Scruncho’s repertoire has branched out to include tragedy as well as comedy with his new one-man show, All I Needed Was a Hug.

Anthony “Scruncho” McKinley

This is autobiography as a combination of stand-up routine, conversation, monologue, and cry of pain. The show begins with a lengthy scene of Scruncho inside a jail cell – according to a program note, he made his stage debut when he ran into a comedy club, jumped on stage, and pretended to be a comedian in an attempt to avoid the police who were hot on his heels. Apparently, though the audience laughed, the cops following him weren’t as amused, and he indeed spent time in the slammer.

After the jail cell scene, we go back to the beginning, which in Scruncho’s case sounds like a childhood you might want to forget. In his reminiscence, Scruncho’s father was irascible, impatient, and not at all a nice guy to be around. Scruncho’s favorite TV program was The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and, after viewing a scene of Eddie and his dad strolling on the beach and discussing their lineage, Scruncho approached his father while he was shaving to ask, “Am I mixed with Native American?” Dad, covered with shaving cream, looked at the boy and exclaimed, “With that nappy hair? You mixed with carpet. No go and vacuum your head!”

Getting lunch money from Mama wasn’t any easier. According to Scruncho, Mama liked to sleep in, and didn’t like to be wakened by anyone in the morning. But instead of setting out the kids’ lunch money the night before in, say, the kitchen, she always kept it in her bedroom. Which meant Scruncho and his sister would have to approach Mama’s closed door “like slaves approaching the master’s house.” A timid knock on the door would often produce an explosive tirade from Mama before the lunch money was forked over.

In fact, though Dad was tough, Mama sounded like the hardest steel in the family. As Scruncho puts it, “Mama was the real gangster.” To prove it, he cites a time the family came home just as a neighbor’s pit bull burst out of the yard and attacked Scruncho and his siblings. Mama yelled for the dog to get out “in the name of Jesus!” – and was apparently so terrifying the poor pit bull ran for its life.

Scruncho’s musings on his childhood years also includes his hilarious description of 6th grade camp, which for him meant an inner-city black kid discovering things like campfires and mountains for the first time, and learning through painful experience that church boots are not the same as hiking boots.

Life continues on, as do the jokes. After Scruncho’s father dies, the young man decided to talk to him, and looks upward – only to hear a voice growl: “Down here!” And while Scruncho loves doing comedy, there are perils to it: while in the process of robbing a bank, one of the tellers recognizes him from a TV appearance.

But eventually the jokes come to an end, as Scruncho’s beloved sister is shot and killed. While Scruncho has endured – and overcome – a lot, this latest blow gets to him more than many of the others, and he finds himself consumed with a desire for vengeance. He goes to court to see the killer – not sure what exactly he’ll do – but is shocked to discover “a kid” and not the hardened criminal he expected. He addresses the court, and finds himself forgiving the killer, whom he refers to as “just a boy.”

Mr. McKinley has a winning personality, with a wide smile one moment and a glowering grimace the next. Stacey McClain has directed with an eye to keeping the pace moving and getting as many laughs – and tears – as possible.

Two cavils: first, Mr. McKinley’s program bio refers to his “mile-a-second” delivery, and that’s pretty accurate – words pour out of him at high speed. But while this keeps the energy level high, it also, unfortunately, means that at times we lose what he’s saying. There were more than a few moments when I just couldn’t understand what was going on.

And second, the opening scene in the jail cell – a highly emotional monologue – doesn’t feel “earned” because we don’t yet know who the character is: when the lights come up, we’re immediately plunged into a “dark night of the soul” but without knowing who the man is we’re watching, how he got here, and what’s caused his pain. By contrast, when we reach the equally high emotions of the end of the play – when Mr. McKinley is dealing with the fallout from his sister’s murder – we’re willing to go along with it, because by that time we know and like Scruncho, and we can empathize with his agony.

But these are minor issues. If you’re looking for laughs – not to mention liberal use of the f-bomb! – head to the Two Roads Theatre for an evening of Scruncho!

Scruncho: All I Needed Was a Hug
Directed by Stacey McClain

April 19, 26; May 3, 10, 17, 24, and 31.
Two Roads Theatre
4348 Tujunga Avenue
Studio City, CA

Tickets: www.plays411.com/allineeded


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