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Laugh Whore: Insatiably Funny

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Dorothy Parker... Brooks Atkinson... Walter Kerr... They all had it easy. They lived in a time when being a Broadway theatre critic pretty much meant you spent your evenings watching and reviewing plays and musicals. Oh sure, there'd be the occasional Judy Garland concert or English translation of Die Fledermaus but for the overwhelming majority of the time the Broadway theatre critics of the past were called upon to write about, well, theatre.

Pity the Broadway theatre critic of today, who must be prepared to intelligently critique stand-up comedy, ballet, opera, literary readings, cabaret acts, mind-reading, autobiographical cocktail talk and whatever the hell Jackie Mason feels like throwing at us. We have to be (gasp) well-versed individuals.

The point I'm sorta leading up to is that, although I've enjoyed his performances in plays (both musical and non), I've never seen Mario Cantone perform as a comic, save for the occasional brief appearance on an awards show or at one of the twelve dozen must-see special events the Broadway community puts out every year. I've never even seen an episode of Steampipe Alley, the children's show he hosted for five years which scored higher ratings with adults than kids, no doubt due to wholesome activities like "Find Sammy Davis Jr.'s Eye in the Pie" and "The Joan Crawford Mother's Day Obstacle Course." But I did know of his reputation as a performer whose hyper-kinetic style repels as many as it amuses. When I told friends I was going to review his solo show Laugh Whore I inevitably got one of two reactions. While some responded with "Oh wow, I love him!", just as many shrieked "Oh God, I hate him!"

But instead of the two hours of screaming and flitting about I was led to expect, in Laugh Whore (and I have no idea how much of this should be credited to director Joe Mantello) Cantone's comedy is rhythmic and musical. His shrieks and explosive physicality seem composed into specific cadences. He'll start calmly talking about a subject (and, yes, he is capably of talking calmly) and then something that irks him will cause a sudden raise in volume accompanied by a fierce jerk of the extremities. (audience laughs) His intensity then goes down a few notches until another thought prompts a quick, broad and usually profane impersonation of some Hollywood legend. (bigger laugh) The process builds until Cantone eventually starts swinging on polls, slamming down furniture and/or climaxing his vents of frustration with a screeching wail. (laughter and applause) It's the comedic equivalent of multiple orgasm.

Perhaps the best way to describe Laugh Whore is as a one-man variety show. Robert Brill's set, primarily a wall full of large bulbs which lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer keep active with effects that the folks at the old Sonny and Cher Show would call tacky, provides an appropriate backdrop for routines like our hero's Vegas-like opening number "This is My Life". (The songs by Cantone, Jerry Dixon and Harold Lubin may have some funny ideas, but they only exist as vehicles for the star's clowning.) Act I is mostly dedicated to show-biz humor, with plenty of diva impersonations (Shelly Winters, Faye Dunaway, Katherine Hepburn, an extended -- and dead-on -- Liza routine, and a remarkable Tina Turner/Cher duet of "Proud Mary", among others.). There's dirt about his unexpected theatrical career, from his reason for turning down a leading role in The Lion King after doing the workshop (The life-sized puppet costume was "like carrying around a dead Siamese twin!") to his frustration in playing the comic lead in The Tempest ("These jokes are 400 years old, folks. You make them funny!").

As intermission ends Cantone asks if there are any straight men in the audience who would like to volunteer to help him out. Don't hesitate to volunteer, straight guys. He won't embarrass you and you get to be part of his hilarious Act II opener. In the show's second half, Cantone ventures into more personal material involving family secrets and lies and his relationship with his half brother and two sisters. (I'm assuming his impersonations are dead-on in these cases.) But it isn't long before he's launching into Judy and an 11 O'Clock number where he responds to audience requests for women to star in The Vagina Monologues. (My request for Elaine Stritch was rewarded with a few bars of "My vagina is still here! It's still here!")

In that Golden Age of Broadway everybody keeps reminding us of these days, a guy like Mario Cantone would certainly have a big, loud, funny Broadway musical or two written for him to star in. You know, the kind of show so tailored to one performer's talents that it never really works when the star is gone. (Think Fade Out - Fade In or Little Me.) But today we have cable, and Laugh Whore is produced by Showtime Networks with the intention of putting it on the small screen. But a performer like Mario Cantone is made for live theatre. The ability to make people laugh is a kind of power over the masses and at the Cort Theatre Cantone is a man possessed with the desire for strength through adulation. His lunatic energy not only reaches to the back of the house, but to the customers in the deli across the street.

Photos of Mario Cantone by Bill Streicher

For more from Michael Dale visit dry2olives.com


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