Taking life advice from Batman may seem like a questionable idea, but Jason O’Connell sees the Caped Crusader a bit differently.
“Batman is the greatest superhero because he’s the most human,” explains the 45-year-old actor. “He’s totally flawed, he doesn’t have any powers, and there’s something really inspiring in that. He’s just a child who went through dark times, and he chose to transform himself.”
O’Connell has related to the superhero since high school, when he would practice doing impressions for a stand-up routine. Since then, the writer and Shakespearean actor’s appreciation has grown into a heartfelt (and, yes, still funny) 90-minute show called “The Dork Knight,” playing at the Abingdon Theatre through Jan. 29.
The show traces how Batman played a role in O’Connell’s life, from inspiring him to pursue acting to finding the courage to confront problems when the temptation was to hide. Over the course of the show, he slips into uncanny impressions of the various Batmen when they’re needed, “taking me to task for things and teaching me little life lessons.”
If there’s a theme to the show, it’s about being true to yourself, which “seems like a funny thing to have fictional characters tell me,” he acknowledges. “There’s a nobility to superheroes, and we love that about them, but how many of us are that honest with other people or ourselves?”
That spoke to him as both a nerdy kid whose obsession started with comic books, and the career he would pursue. Though his obsession began with comic books, it was Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece “Batman” that had the biggest effect on him.
The movie came out right around the time when O’Connell was considering going into acting, and here was giant movie star Jack Nicholson elevating his previously nerdy franchise to cool status, and “an actor who had no business being anywhere near a superhero movie,” Michael Keaton. “He was a comedian, and he was considered soft and small and not macho enough to play that part, and that’s how I felt at that age,” O’Connell recalls. “It blew my mind open.”
He’s been performing and tweaking “The Dork Knight” on various stages around the city since 2011, but this version is both different and definitive. “It really does feel like my story with Batman wraps up in an interesting way,” he hints.
To get a taste of O’Connell’s gift for impressions, check out the pep talk he gave as Michael Keaton in 2013 to then-incoming Batman Ben Affleck on Funny Or Die. While O’Connell may have “very mixed feelings” about “Batman vs. Superman,” he maintains that “you gotta give him another movie or two to figure it out.” Maybe Affleck, too, just has to find a way to channel his inner Batman.