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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night and The Tricky Business of When (and when not) To Be Funny

Also, Shakespeare's lover finds romance in Brooklyn in Romeo & Bernadette and Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order) ruminates on religion and culture.

In his first scene in his sweet and funny new musical, Mr. Saturday Night, Billy Crystal bombs badly... on purpose.

Playing Buddy Young, Jr., the onetime Golden Age TV comedy star whose biggest gig now is performing for the breakfast crowd at the Walter P. Saperstein Retirement Center All-Purpose Room, Crystal -- in a routine he's scripted with co-bookwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, lyricist Amanda Green and composer Jason Robert Brown -- faces the theatre audience and pulls off the illusion that Buddy's jokes are getting no reaction from the retirement home audience, while his wisecracking responses to their silence get big laughs from the Nederlander theatre crowd.

He makes it look way easier than I'm sure it is. Which brings up the question of how, with the unpredictability of live theatre, can you insure that the reaction to a comedy performance within a play, which is staged with the theatre audience being the character's audience, gets the reaction that is essential to the plot?

I don't mean plays like Julian Barry's Lenny Bruce bio Lenny or Gretchen Law's Dick Gregory drama, Turn Me Loose, where recreations of the real-life subjects' stand-up routines contain a documentation element.

I'm thinking more about shows like one of the first Broadway plays I ever saw, back in 1977; Trevor Griffiths' Comedians. Milo O'Shea played the teacher of a night school course in comedy where his students (all men) were given a shot at performing at a social club in front of an agent. Among the actors playing his students were young John Lithgow, already a Tony Winner for The Changing Room, and Jonathan Pryce, the only member of the original London cast to reprise his role on Broadway, He got his first Tony for this one.

In the second act we see each student giving his performance, with the theatre audience acting as the social club attendees. It's followed by a scene back at the school where the agent evaluates each turn and reveals if he's interested in signing any of them.

So in order for the final scene to make sense, the writing and acting must insure that theatre audience finds certain performers funnier than others. Mike Nichols, who knew a thing or two about nightclub comedy, directed, and I can only imagine him telling some poor actor that he has to change his performance because he's getting too many laughs.

I wasn't able to catch Late Night Comic during its brief 1987 Broadway run, but I recall that word of mouth during previews was that the musical's story of a piano bar entertainer who switches careers and becomes a top stand-up comic wasn't landing because audiences didn't find any of his routines funny. This issue was smartly avoided by Jerry Colker (book/lyrics) and Michael Rupert (music) in their 1985 Off-Broadway musical 3 Guys Naked From The Waist Down, where the acts of their three comedian characters were represented by songs that gave you a sense of their acts without relying on jokes getting laughs.

Buy by far the most memorable stage representation of stand-up comedy I've ever seen was Dick Shawn's 1977 Off-Broadway solo show, The 2nd Greatest Entertainer In The Whole Wide World.

While some may only remember Dick Shawn from his classic turn as flower child actor L.S.D. in Mel Brooks' original film, The Producers, when his career began to take off in the 1950s he was regarded as one of the most off-beat and unpredictable comedy talents of his generation.

In the first scene of The 2nd Greatest Entertainer... he played a stand-up comic in his dressing room, running through his act before the show. Utilizing a fourth wall, he riffed through a hilarious series of observations and social commentaries involving world politics, religion and other aspects of everyday life.

Then, in the second scene, after wearing out the audience with laughter, he is now that same comic on stage doing his act. The act that the theatre audience has just seen. And now we're not laughing because we just heard all of these jokes. We see him taking the first few silences in stride, trying to shrug them off with a smile, but when joke after joke bombs we see the panic in his face. Some members of the audience tried to help with pity laughs, but that's exactly what they sounded like. Pity. The pain of total rejection becomes apparent in his voice and body language as we witness the tragedy of a brilliant clown failing to get through to his audience.

It was the greatest use of live theatre I've ever seen.

And while we're on the subject...

From his opening moments on stage, and certainly from the title, Michael Takiff's Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order) appears like it's going to another one of those evenings of on-stage stand-up comedy disguised as a solo play.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night and The Tricky Business of When (and when not) To Be Funny
Michael Takiff'
(Photo: Pablo Calderón Santiago)

And a lot of his show would fit very comfortably on a Borscht Belt stage; from his opening survey of the audience to check on how many Jews are in attendance, to a dialogue negotiating the covenant between God and Abraham ("If you agree to found the Jewish people, you have God's solemn promise that four thousand years from now the cold cuts will be spectacular.") to a seminar presentation on "How To Be A Good Jew" ("Attend the shul where you feel the least uncomfortable.").

But midway through, Takiff tells us something surprising about his own religious beliefs and his stories about growing up Jewish in Elizabeth, New Jersey are now seen in a different context; the matter of being Jewish by culture if not by religious devotion.

Directed by Brian Lane Green, Takiff always appears sincere and authentic in his energetic performance, but, clocking in at nearly two hours. he gets a bit repetitive in exploring his personal conflicts he has regarding religion versus history and science. But at only $20 a ticket, you might regard this as a worthwhile visit to an interesting work in progress.

If Henry Higgins was from Brooklyn and Eliza Doolittle hailed from a dignified house of Verona...

...Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady classic "The Rain In Spain" might have sounded a bit like "Dino Diction", one of the highlights from Mark Saltzman's riotously funny and farcical romance, Romeo & Bernadette. Directed and choreographed Justin Ross Cohen, this sparkling bit of mindless fun premiered in January 2020 and now returns Off-Broadway.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night and The Tricky Business of When (and when not) To Be Funny
Anna Kostakis and Nikita Burshteyn
(Photo: Russ Rowland)

The premise is that at the end of Shakespeare's tragedy, what Romeo (Nikita Burshteyn) thought was poison was actually a very, very strong sleeping potion that doesn't allow him to wake up until 1960. He then meets Bernadette (Anna Kostakis), the tough-talking daughter of a Brooklyn-Italian mob boss who's apparently an exact double for you-know-who.

When their vacation in Italy is over, Romeo follows the family to Kings County, where he gets caught in the middle of another family rivalry and his new pal Dino (Michael Notardonato) helps him blend in by teaching his buddy to ditch his Elizabethan tongue and learn proper Brooklynese.

Saltzman's score brings new lyrics to classic Italian melodies, and the company is full of terrific voices that do them justice, even when singing such frivolity as...

I offer thanks to thee,

I shall undo my verbal curse.

I shall acquire your style of speaking

I shall fugeddabout blank verse.

Curtain Line...

Margaret Brainard Hamilton.

My name is Margaret Brainard Hamilton.

And there's a million things I haven't done.

But just you wait, my pretty,

Just you wait.



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