If all science classes were taught by someone like Jack Hitt, more people would be interested in science. Or at the very least brain science. Never have you seen someone describe the way different parts of the three-pound vital organ light up when we speak and when we listen so warmly.
The This American Life contributor (and frequent performer at New York storytelling venue The Moth) alternates between vignettes of personal yarns and empirical talks in his one-man show Making Up the Truth. He makes a strong start, picking up the audience and immediately dropping it off on Meeting Street. Hitt's a 10-year-old practicing magician, and he's moved to a neighborhood mostly occupied by "fairies." He learns the truth about sex as he hears stories about his fascinating neighbor Gordon, who eventually becomes Dawn Langley Pepita Simmons, noted for writing books, being half of South Carolina's first biracial marriage, and having sex reassignment surgery. This introduction was especially successful among the Charleston crowd, who let out some of their biggest laughs of the night; while the Southern charms and idiosyncrasies that Hitt describes may be foreign Northeastern metropolitan audiences, they were certainly familiar and welcome here.
Dawn was the person who led Hitt to telling stories, but hers was one he had stopped telling for decades, until his friend Ira Glass got Hitt involved in what would become one of NPR's most popular programs. The journalist became famous for his story about his old neighbor, and for others, like the one about his Brazilian death squad landlord Bob, which you'll also hear in Making Up the Truth.
Hitt realized the tale he had developed as a child seemed unbelievable, to the point that even he didn't believe it anymore. And as he points out in the more educational segments of the show, that's something that his brain, and all our brains, did intentionally. They create stories for us in a multitude of ways, from influencing how we see and hear things in the moment to how we remember those same things, because of evolutionary adaptations millions of years in the making. These are facts that Hitt presents simply and charmingly. It's brain science that won't hurt your brain.
The stage is sparse but homey, a stool on the left and a kitchen table on the right. Behind Hitt, a screen visually illustrates some of the ideas or anecdotes he presents, from a childhood photo of an unfortunate haircut to ever-entertaining entertaining optical illusions. Hitt is obviously an excellent writer, something especially apparent during his hysterically lucid pantomime of a disastrous production of Peter Pan.
But the night wasn't flawless. Hitt was miked, but it seemed like there were projection issues. (The volume was comfortable for the reviewer sitting in the fifth row, but it may not have been for someone all the way at the top of this full house.) And since he's not a trained actor, there's a rehearsed quality that the show can't quite shake, until its last story. The one about Hitt's childhood best friend, who died of cancer when they were 22.
It is a tragic way to wrap up the show, but it manages to be a darkly funny account. Hitt's description of a couple seemingly sketched out by R. Crumb, along with their tasteless attempts at sympathy at a wake, is quite possibly the funniest moment of the night (especially when Hitt mimics the skinny wife). When he tells this tale, it's like the rest of the theater disappears, and all that's left is you and him and your brain.