FROM BERLIN, ARI Hoptman recently wrote a haiku praising Leslie Ball. "Without Leslie Ball," he wrote (five syllables!), "I would just be a creeping, lowly bacter-ya." (Seven syllables, and then five again if you mispronounce "bacteria" as Hoptman indicates).
"But Leslie exists, so I'm not one of those things. And Buddha be praised," he continued in the missive, and on like this for 14 adoring stanzas. He e-mailed this megahaiku to Ball, who printed it up and read it before the audience at her Saturday-night cabaret, as she does with all his e-mails. She could not re-create Hoptman's hangdog expression, or the careful enunciation he affects when reading poetry, or his facility with accents and impersonations. But by reading his letters, Ball could preserve his language on the stage of the Southern Theater, and Hoptman's language is unique. "I'm not funny naturally," Ball explains of her proxy performances, "but Ari is brilliantly funny. It's a treat to find out what it is like to get laughs."
Sometimes Hoptman sends her deranged children's stories, such as "The Big, Tall, Amazingly Powerful Robot Who Lived on a Huge Planet With Other Unbelievably Strong Robots So He Never Seemed at All Impressive." Sometimes he sends odes to Berlin, such as one that read, "Airplanes weeping from up above, each fuselage dropping a saddened tear of toxic fumes." Virtually every letter contains a sentimental note, as Hoptman writes longingly of the Balls Cabaret, where he had sold tickets and performed comedy every Saturday night for four years. "I miss you all terribly," he wrote in one letter, "and think of Balls every hour of the day."
Hoptman went to Berlin in October of 1999 (he will be back for the next two weekends, performing his act at the Bryant-Lake Bowl) to continue his advanced degree in German Philology, which so far has meant translating Web pages into English and doing light office work for the Free University of Berlin. He tried out his act at Berlin's Checkpoint Cabaret, translating his routines into German in the afternoon and performing them onstage in the evening.
The Germans' response to Hoptman's brainy, understated comedy was polite and restrained. His routines have included such oddities as his impersonation of an angry goose (Hoptman slowly leans left, then right, interrupting himself with a sudden, startling hiss) and a short story about two fire engines that refuse to extinguish a fire in an art gallery. "My heart is breaking," one of the engines says, disdainfully. "Boo hoo hoo, a bunch of Doodle City society types aren't going to be able to look at pictures and make shallow insights."
"Nowhere near as warm as Balls," Hoptman wrote of the response at Checkpoint Cabaret, "and with a more reserved host, and no chocolate." (Ball distributes Hershey's Kisses). Ball dutifully read this to the audience at her own cabaret, and several weeks later read an e-mail that said, "I realize that it must be strange for first-timers to hear letters sent by someone you may never have seen in your life."
Strange or not, both Ball and Hoptman are determined to continue presenting Hoptman's transatlantic love letters to the Balls Cabaret. "IS IT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR JUST A FEW MINUTES WITH MY FRIENDS HERE?" one of Hoptman's most recent e-mails screams at the Balls audience, as e-mails do, in all caps. "HEL-LO!! I MEAN, I'M JUST TRYING TO TELL THEM WHAT'S UP OVER HERE."
"By the way, sorry for yelling before," Hoptman concludes. "Hope you're enjoying the show.