April 16, 2024

When comedian Chloe Radcliffe cheated on a boyfriend for the first time, as a sophomore at Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College in 2009, she had an epiphany.

“You realize you don’t burst into flames. The person that you’re cheating on doesn’t find out,” Radcliffe explains. “You can still care about them; you can care about multiple people at once.”

Eventually, when Radcliffe resolved to end this relationship, she was surprised to learn that the request could be shut down out of hand. “I think I learned very early that it would be easier to cheat and get away with it than it would be to end a relationship when it was ready to be ended,” she says, “and so I developed this pattern of staying in relationships too long and just cheating, rather than getting out of them.”

So began a years-long pattern of infidelity that Radcliffe deftly chronicles in Cheat, a hilarious and sharply crafted one-woman show that she’s been developing over the last two years.

An eight-year veteran of the stand-up scene, who just landed her first WGA Award nomination for her writing on Command Z, a sci-fi comedy web series from Steven Soderbergh in which she also stars alongside Michael Cera, Roy Wood Jr. and more, Radcliffe first came around to the idea of an onstage deep-dive into her “maladaptive” patterns a few years ago, when she began discussing cheating onstage. Each time she did, audience members would come up and tell her “through gritted teeth” how much the material resonated before fleeing “into the night,” which led her to reflect on two things about cheating — “that it was everywhere,” and yet so taboo that people rarely talk openly about it.

“As far as I can tell, cheating is the only topic in gender and sexuality that we don’t treat with nuance,” Radcliffe opines. “Every other topic, we say, ‘Your experience is different than mine, and that deserves empathy, and even if I don’t get it, I should understand it.’ And that is not how we treat cheating. We treat cheating as like, cheaters are bad, they are evil, they’re the villains, that’s it.”

Of course, Radcliffe does not pretend to be “the good guy” in the story she’s telling, making it clear that she doesn’t condone the behavior. “It’s not that I’m just brazen and have no sense of societal awareness whatsoever,” she says, of talking about cheating so openly. “I think it is always bad. I think it always hurts somebody. And also, I think not talking about it doesn’t make it go away.” The comic sensed that by shedding light on uncomfortable truths about herself with honesty, vulnerability and nuance, rather than shoving them down, she might be able to do some good. By way of her show, she could be “a pressure valve for other people” — for those who have cheated, those who have been tempted, and those who have been cheated on — opening up a dialogue and making people dealing with their own invisible struggles feel seen.

Growing up as a “performance nerd,” rather than someone obsessed with stand-up, in particular, Radcliffe began her career in comedy in Minnesota, moving to New York after being named one of TBS’s Comics to Watch at the New York Comedy Festival. Eight months into her time there, she was accepted into the NBC Late Night Writers Workshop, and six months after that, she got staffed on the Tonight Show, where she worked as a writer for all of 2020. The year after, she “truly fell ass backwards” into selling a feature to a major studio, which remains in development, thereafter taping a short set for Comedy Central and being referred by a “friend of a friend of a friend” for Command Z. While initially only hired as a writer, Soderbergh wound up having her read for a lead role, which she landed before going on to develop Cheat.

In the show, which Radcliffe will perform at The Elysian Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, the comedian explains that her cheating over the years has been motivated by a number of factors. Generally speaking, she’s always felt like an outsider, “both socially and physically,” therefore coming to crave validation. Radcliffe believes that “all American women wind up tying our self-worth to our sexual desirability,” and always felt particularly “outside the realm of desirability” given the “giant birthmark” she has on her cheek.

Beyond that, she was impacted by the situation with her parents, who split up when she was a baby and never wound up dating anyone else, providing no great example when it came to forming and maintaining healthy relationships. As an only child whose father lived in a different state, Radcliffe came to have “a weird relationship with aloneness” and also “learned very early that relationships would not necessarily be reliable.” Her response to that was to begin collecting connections “like a magpie,” while at the same time keeping people at arm’s length.

To the comedian, part of what was so compelling about the idea of turning her cheating experiences into a one-woman show was the notion that so many of these kinds of productions focus on things that have happened to someone, yet so few focus on the things that people have done. “Everybody’s done something,” she says, “and it is much more comfortable to say, ‘I have been aggressed upon’ than to say  ‘I was the aggressor.’”

Really, though, what led Radcliffe to craft Cheat as “a speech piece” was her early-life academic history with speech and debate, “the core thing” she loves to do, which she’d never before wound a way to bring into her stand-up career. “I competed in speech and debate for 10 years, and there are categories in speech that a lot of people don’t know about that are basically monologue competitions, and that was my bread and butter,” Radcliffe explains. “That’s where I came from, and my favorite pieces to perform were…ones that started really funny and ended really sad.”

Radcliffe also took inspiration from Eddie Izzard, the comedian she most credits with shaping her sense of humor. “They perform characters with such nuanced, tiny, teeny little character details, with this kind of magnetic presence on stage, where it’s like you just can’t look away,” she says. “And I hope to be that.”

Radcliffe says that maybe 60% her material was written specifically for Cheat, with the rest consisting of old bits that she’s polished anew and repurposed. In scripting the show, she leaned equally on her experience as a stand-up and a screenwriter, looking to construct “a jewel box” where every element matters and returns. “It’s all there intentionally, it’s all there connected, and it’s not an hour of stand-up in that it’s not just a basket of jokes, and the only connection is that they’re from the same person,” she says. “I didn’t even just want it to be an hour about stuff that’s all on one topic. I wanted it to feel like a piece.”

She first put the show up on its feet in March of last year, running it repeatedly during a residency at Under St. Mark’s — “this incredible shoestring black box theater in New York” — before taking it to the world’s largest performing arts festival, Edinburgh. At this point, she’s performed the show around 50 times, on multiple continents, and it continues to evolve each time — still very much “a living, breathing piece.”

While it’s hard to imagine a creative assignment more emotionally loaded and revealing than the one Radcliffe has taken on, she says she’s “always been pretty open” about her emotional issues and bad behavior — on one level, just out of self-preservation. “I’ve always had the inherent instinct that if I don’t talk about it, it’s going to turn into this hard nut of shame inside me that will only get worse and darker and harder, and metastasize into something that could go away further than what I’ve already done,” she admits.

Radcliffe credits her level of introspection to her mother, who gave her “a model of investigating” her emotions and “excavating” her motivations and patterns, by teaching her to process her interior experience from a young age. Of course, she acknowledges, none of this is to say that she’s “perfectly adjusted,” even now — though she’s getting there, and Cheat itself has played a big part in her personal evolution.

“I thought I knew myself really well before I went into the process of developing this show, and now I see patterns in myself way deeper than the cheating,” says Radcliffe. “The cheating is actually pretty superficial. The cheating is really just a symptom of much deeper emotional sh*t…and I now see those patterns so much clearer than I ever thought I could.”

In addition to strengthening her relationships with her parents, Radcliffe’s time working on the show has changed her relationship to herself as a performer. She says that “any ounce of defensiveness and any ounce of deflection” on her part, in putting the show on, comes across as so “gross” that she’s had no choice but to let all her defenses down. “And I think that that pushed me to become even more myself on stage than I already was,” she continues. “So, I actually like who I am as a performer better after this show.”

Going forward, Radcliffe has big ambitions for Cheat, including another residency, an Off-Broadway run, and even potentially a TV series. She’s aware that the show may well come onto the radar of an ex or two, if it takes on a bigger profile, and is prepared as one can be for such a thing. Certainly, she’s aware that this would be “incredibly painful” for the men from her past and is not relishing the idea of such a run-in.

Still, any sense of betrayal, she believes, would be accompanied by a sense of recognition. “I think that they would go, ‘Yeah, that’s the person I know. This makes sense,’” says Radcliffe. “I think this show is consistent with who I am, for better and for worse.”

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