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Confessional playwright bares his soul - and his sex life

3.5 out of 4 stars

One thing about growing up Catholic, you get used to the act of confession. James Gangl may not be St. Augustine, but he bares his soul – and his sex life – with side-splitting candour in Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups.

Gangl's one-man show, the box-office champ at this year's Toronto Fringe, is a hugely entertaining exercise in self-exposure put forth with a comedian's crack timing and an inveterate Catholic's need to come clean.

The show, remounted and expanded for a run at Theatre Passe Muraille, is built on the conceit that the 32-year-old Gangl needs a girlfriend. In the hope of winning some female hearts in the audience, he sets out to reveal his romantic past. Taking us back to 2005, he recalls how, as a novice actor in a Coors Light commercial, he fell head-over-snowboard for a supermodel co-star during a location shoot at Mont Tremblant. Although the two hit it off at first, Gangl's devout Catholicism reduces him to a state of panic whenever sex is imminent – a condition that only complicates their subsequent hot-and-cold relationship.

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Gangl kept a journal of his heartbreak, a thick sheaf of paper from which he quotes, apologetically, the cringe-inducing poetry he wrote at the time. (Even more embarrassing, he posted it on Myspace.) He then goes on to parody its badness by reciting his dating misadventures in ridiculous Beat doggerel. He also shares details about his masturbation habits and viscid make-out sessions. While it's not exactly shocking in the age of Too Much Information, Gangl puts it over with such charming artlessness that we can only laugh and sympathize.

There is, of course, art here. The innocuous-looking and, yes, gangly Gangl knows how to use his nebbish qualities to create an instant rapport with an audience. It's no surprise he was cast as one of those dead-average dudes who populate male-fantasy beer ads. But he's also a seasoned improviser and Second City instructor, and he knows how to instantly capitalize on a flubbed joke or a faulty dry-ice machine.

In essence, though, his performance is closer to a stand-up routine than an acting showcase. His character impersonations are limited to a few funny voices and gestures. And he's not much of a mimic. His imitation of Coors Light pitchman John O'Hurley (a.k.a. Elaine's boss on Seinfeld) would be a lot more effective if he could replicate O'Hurley's hammy baritone.

Those little things remind us that Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups is crowd-pleasing fringe fare, not ambitious theatre. If it were the latter, Gangl might have dealt more with the dilemmas faced by a religious person in a permissive secular society. And, while good ol' Catholic guilt makes for a great comic device, you wonder why the adult Gangl never questions the tenets of the Church. As it is, he reaches a conclusion about sex versus intimacy that would satisfy even the most conservative priest.

These quibbles only surface in retrospect. Gangl has us in giggling thrall for the entire 75-minute show. He fires off his monologue with breathless energy, and director Chris Gibbs has him ricocheting all over Passe Muraille's Mainspace stage. There's no set to speak of, just a couple of chairs and some props, including that journal and the inevitable water bottle – which becomes the object of a crazy coup de thèâtre. C.J. Astronomo's lighting crisply indicates scene changes and pulses like a throbbing red headache when Gangl has his erotic crises.

In case we doubt the veracity of his confessions, Gangl ultimately produces some video evidence to prove that, in the words of Orson Welles, it's all true. But it hardly matters. Even if he's made stuff up, or exaggerated for comic effect, his show still hits its mark. Anyone who has ever made a fool of themselves in love – or in the bedroom – will be able to identify with it.

Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups

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  • Written and performed by James Gangl
  • Directed by Chris Gibbs
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto

Sex, Religion & Other Hang-ups runs until Oct. 22.

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