Review: GENE AND GILDA at Penguin Rep

A World Premier at Penguin Rep!

By: Aug. 21, 2023
Review: GENE AND GILDA at Penguin Rep

Review: GENE AND GILDA at Penguin Rep

Any work with a well-known celebrity protagonist (or in this case two) comes, to a degree, with its own ready-made audience – presumably saving the producers a bundle on marketing! 

Having a sensational cast is a great plus and “Gene and Gilda,” a world premier at Penguin Rep has just that in the wonderful Jordan Kai Burnett and Jonathan Randell Silver

Review: GENE AND GILDA at Penguin Rep
Jonathan Randell Silver.
Photo:  A. Silver Photography

To begin with, the two actors are dead ringers for Gene and Gilda.  The resemblance right out of the gate is uncanny. Kudos to the makeup and wardrobe teams at Penguin (Gregory Gale's costume design and Bobbie Zlotnik's wigs). 

Mr. Silver has the tougher job of the two leads, because Gene Wilder’s persona is less well-known, and his personality less over-the-top than Gilda’s.  Nonetheless, Mr. Silver does a superb job of making Wilder into a deeply sympathetic character, diving into all of the actor/writer/director’s many idiosyncrasies.   

Review: GENE AND GILDA at Penguin Rep
Jordan Kai Burnett
Photo: Jenny Anderson

Ms. Burnett is just dazzling.  She channels Gilda in a delightfully organic way; it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her.   Gilda Radner had an enormous amount of natural charm that just leapt at you through the screen (and those of us luck enough to have seen her one-woman show on Broadway felt that same charisma across the footlights) and Ms. Burnett has the same kind of charisma.

Having a concrete story to work from in the re-telling of someone’s life isn’t always the blessing it may seem.  The playwright must walk a fine line between drama and didacticism, and that line is a blurry one based upon each audience member's knowledge of the famous protagonists.

Too often, Mr. Gitter falls back on the luxury of having a ready-made plot, and the play comes across fairly superficial, mostly touching on the highlights, the “greatest hits” of the characters’ storied lives.  The play opens with Wilder sitting for an interview about his life and relationship with Gilda and the well-worn device quickly devolves into a chronological re-telling of their time together – complete with predictable information dumps about their careers and all the famous people they’ve worked with along the way.  Well-constructed exposition and deftly interwoven facts and histories illuminate and elevate a bio-play.  In Gene and Gilda, it's a bit too much like resume reading for the benefit less well-informed audience members (or merely just name checking).  

Gilda’s appearance, as a ghost, (conveniently) happens immediately and for the remainder of the play she’s a regular character in the story, pretty much abandoning the “interview” device.  The overly and overtly expositional initial dialogue keeps the play from really getting started in earnest for quite a while.  Director Joe Brancato’s rapid-fire direction, with lines of dialogue just about overlapping one another, at the beginning of the play, feels a bit like “let’s get the boring stuff out of the way fast.”  After a few minutes of prefunctory, prefactory banter, the actors relax into a more natural form (and pace) of interacting and the love story unfolds, less forced and more convincing, and Burnett and Silver have a chance to shine.   They are instantly appealing and their chemistry is captivating.

Review: GENE AND GILDA at Penguin Rep Gene and Gilda’s famous love story largely played out in public, and for those of us old enough to remember it, the play offers little new material, (excepting the fact that Gene was actually born Jerome Silberman!) rather, it focuses on memorable touchstones of their relationship and careers.  In fact, several of their most famous on-stage/camera moments are actually drafted into the text of the play.  We get to see Ms. Burnett do spot-on Rosanne Rosannadanna and Emily Litella impersonations.  The neurotic Leo Bloom’s (Wilder’s character in “The Producers”) famous obsession with his “lucky blue blankey” becomes Gene’s obsession with his security hankie in the play.   When Gene and Gilda dance, we see a replay of Marilyn Suzanne Miller’s legendary 1978 “Dancing in The Dark” Saturday Night Live sketch, which Gilda did with Steve Martin.  The sketch itself was a spoof of the dance scene between Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the film “The Band Wagon,” but in the SNL version, instead of grace and elegance, Radner and Martin dance chaotically and clumsily and pratfall around the stage.  So, in essence, the scene in “Gene and Gilda” is a spoof of a spoof.  The second time the couple dances in the play, they (needlessly) do the same crazy choreography again.  

It's undoubtably challenging to tell a story when the audience already knows how it will end.  So the telling of the story must be especially compelling.  Gene and Gilda relies just a little too much on old and borrowed material rather than the deeper aspects of this emminently interesting couples’ relationship.   

The engaging and immensely likeable performances of the two leads keep the play entertaining, adding color and charm to the famously colorful and charming characters.  Director Joe Brancato keeps the pace humming around Christian Fleming's charming unit set - which abley doubles for numerous locations in the show.

At the end of the day, “Gene and Gilda” is a pleasant and entertaining evening, marked by two superb performances.  But one can't help but ask: “if these characters were not famous, would this play be at all interesting?”

Peter Danish

“GENE AND GILDA” runs through August 27th.


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