Luscious Johnny Valiant, the professional wrestler performing a monologue on the New York stage this week, came of age one night in the mid-1980s, when he found himself sharing a hotel room with Andre the Giant. The Giant was billed by promoters at 7 feet 4 inches, 520 pounds, and on this particular evening had chosen to stalk around the room in the nude. After the pair had retired to their beds, the Giant uttered the words Valiant least wanted to hear: "I'm lonely." Still later, Valiant says, he awoke to a loud rustling sound. "Andre was having a wrestling match with himself," he says, "and he was winning."
An Evening With Luscious Johnny Valiant opened at the Theater for the New City last weekend and, except for two middle-aged women who walked out during the first performance, the show has met with modest approval. On Saturday, the crowd included Johnny Diamond, a luminary from the wrestling industry who took a seat in the front row, and Darren Aronofsky, the director of Requiem for a Dream who sat a bit closer to the back. Valiant, who is 56, began the performance by watching a video from his younger days, when he had long blond hair and favored shiny purple tights. Then he took hold of some old wrestling gear and, in a sudden burst of disgust, flung it into a trash can.
Valiant delivers the 90-minute confessional that follows off the top of his head, veering from one story to the next depending on his mood. He joined the wrestling circuit after high school, working small outfits in Florida, Tennessee, and California under the name Johnny Sullivan. He found fame playing the brother of Handsome Jimmy Valiant (the two men aren't related), a partnership that produced a pair of tag-team championship belts and landed Johnny on the well-heeled roster of the World Wrestling Federation. Since leaving the WWF in 1990, Valiant has pursued a career as an actor, monologuist, and stand-up comedian. "I never knew I was an actor until I retired from wrestling," he says, though his talent for his former profession surely fed the latter.
The New York stage has indulged retired jocks before: Babe Ruth and Jake LaMotta, each in varying states of delirium, turned to performance art when arena crowds stopped cheering. But whereas Ruth and LaMotta marketed themselves as clowns, Luscious Johnny maintains an even, almost meditative state throughout his performance, only rarely cracking wise. "I'm not a Borscht Belt comedian," he says, adding, "How could anybody steal my material?" But he is funny, prowling the stage and using his graying, 240-pound frame as a comic prop. It's as if Spalding Gray had, at least for a few minutes, entered the body of Jonathan Winters.
If there's a unifying theme to the show, it's Valiant the ex-jock regarding his legacy of half nelsons and asking himself: What do I do now? During Saturday's night performance, he seemed to be struggling with his memories. As he regarded the vintage wrestling posters that adorned the stage walls, he insisted, "I'm still there, I'm still there." To prove it, Valiant closed the show by hopping across the stage and lip-syncing to Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." Then he seemed to forget about the song and let loose a long, primal scream. He is still there.
Between shows, Valiant sat down for breakfast at a diner in the East Village. He spoke like a young thespian on the make, hoping for more substantial gigs or, failing that, bigger venues. "The reason I moved here was for the acting business, and I'll tell you what, that's kind of dried up for me," he says, slicing through a thick stack of pancakes. "But with this theater presentation, this so-called one-man show, without me even knowing it, I guess I've reinvented myself."