He added muscle, but it stripped him (so to speak) of his self-esteem. That’s the takeaway from Aaron Berg’s solo show, “The Underbelly Diaries,” in which a twenty-something bodybuilder finds himself performing in clubs as a male stripper — a career that led to stints as both a gigolo and male prostitute. In the show, the playwright reflects on a period in his life in which he learned about a seamy side of American society.
Directed by Dwight McFee, “The Underbelly Diaries” is the story of how Berg, who grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Toronto, reacted to losing a girl to a more muscular man by working out and taking steroids. After a year and a half of bodybuilding and stripping, he turned to studying philosophy. His play, based on his diaries, is both a humorous account of the sordid world of male stripping and a critique of masculinity in American culture.
Even though he has turned to a career as a writer and actor, Berg still cuts an imposing figure. While only 5-foot-6, he is both extremely muscular and covered with Star of David tattoos on his shoulder, forearm and biceps. He told The Jewish Week that from the age of six he had a fantasy of looking like a superhero. But he got more than he bargained for in sculpting his body in a way that distorted his self-image and undermined his self-esteem.
Stripping, which was especially popular during the economic boom of the late 1980s, was starting to lose some of its appeal when Berg got into it in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, Berg told The Jewish Week, as a bodybuilder who could not earn a living just from competitions, he had two options: working as a doorman or stripping. “Stripping seemed like more a fun route to go,” he said. “And it turned out to be incredibly fun.”
He was disconcerted, however, by how he was treated by women spectators. “Women watching male strippers have an incredible sense of entitlement — far worse than men watching female strippers. Women would grab me on stage in my nether regions. I needed to have female security guards during my performances.” Still, Berg noted, stripping taught him a lot about timing, which turned out to be useful when he became an actor. This makes sense to him because of the historical relationship between comedy and burlesque in vaudeville.
Perhaps because he used a non-Jewish stage name while he was stripping, Berg said, said, he had no disadvantage among other male strippers, many of whom were black and Latino. But he was unexpectedly exposed to anti-Semitism from patrons, especially a Russian mobster’s wife, who screamed anti-Semitic comments while she was having sex with him — an episode that sounds eerily similar to a controversial recent episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Through its various incarnations over the last several years, Berg said, “The Underbelly Diaries” has evolved from “a Bukowski-esque telling of dirty stories to a critique of gender. It has a lot of social relevance in terms of the effect of entertainment on men and women. And it taps into the notion of capitalism and what people do for money in their chasing down of the American Dream.”
“The Underbelly Diaries” opens March 22 and runs through April 7 at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets, $31.25, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.