What can you do with an hour? You could waste it watching another formulaic reality show, put in a half-hearted effort at an exercise class, or if you’re writer, producer, and performer Alex Mahgoub, you could tell the heart-wrenchingly honest, vulnerable and often surprisingly funny story of how he survived his Egyptian immigrant father’s brutal murder and his childhood as a “fat kid with glasses” to eventually become an elite New York City real estate agent. (And a canny one at that – he actually hands out business cards at the beginning of the show. Why miss an opportunity, after all?)
Baba, which means “father” in Arabic, uses the murder of Mahgoub’s father when Mahgoub was only ten as the jumping off point to explore his later struggles with death, obesity, bullies, identity and bisexuality, with his father’s spirit never far from his thoughts. It’s an intimate portrayal of a millennial (Mahgoub is 30) trying to figure out what it means to be a man in today’s world, and how to pursue the American dream in the new reality created by the financial crisis and recession.
Switching between narrative and caricatures of the cast of characters who populated his young life, Mahgoub is at his best when he contrasts the tough, confident persona of his father with his own soft temperament and struggles to find himself, wanting so much to be like his strong, well-liked father while truthfully being so different from him in almost every way.
With only a single chair, a glass of water and one stage light to help him tell his story, Mahgoub manufactures a fascinating tale out of nothing but his intimate recollections and a genuine gift for conveying raw emotion. In one powerful moment, the young Alex looks at the (invisible to the audience) belongings of his recently lost father, a scene that left me with a profound sense of the depth of his personal tragedy.
A natural performer, Mahgoub easily darts between characters as diverse as his self-assured father, sassy junior high crush, tough-love high school football coach, and flirty first boyfriend. Despite growing out of being the “fat kid with glasses” into a hunky teenage football player, Mahgoub is comfortable and uninhibited with his professed bisexuality, never sensationalizing it or exploiting it as he easily could – although perhaps a little more detail about his sexual coming-of-age would fill in some of the gaps in Mahgoub’s journey to radical self-acceptance with more clarity.
After an hour with Mahgoub, you will feel you have made a new friend. In one interview about his show Mahgoub said “I want to inspire people to know that regardless of any tragedy in life, you have to keep up hope and stay positive,” and I would argue that he has succeeded in that mission with Baba. I wholeheartedly recommend this one-man show to anyone who loves a good story well told.