Bea Arthur(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bea Arthur
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Over the years, Bea Arthur and Elaine Stritch have regularly been praised by audiences and colleagues for the same ineffable performing knack: great timing. But as the former worked herself through a tour and edged closer to Manhattan with the one-woman show she now calls Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends, the theater buzz was that, in this instance, La Arthur's timing wasn't so hot. She was provoking a comparison to Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, and the outcome was unlikely to work in her favor.

Not to worry. Arthur's off-stage timing turns out to be just fine, because her on-stage timing is as sharp as ever--as sharp as it has been since the days when, drolly playing Vera Charles in Mame, she shuffled her morning-after self down a staircase, asked "What time is it?" and then, following a theatrical pause of just the right length, asked "What day is it?" Arthur flaunts many similar examples of brilliant comic timing throughout Just Between Friends, which she kicks off startlingly by striding in from the wings almost before the lights have gone down and with no fanfare of any kind. To make more of the cleverly off-kilter entrance, she immediately launches into a recipe for lamb. It's one she claims to rely on when she's throwing a party, and she presents it with sly sincerity. It unlikely that she's laying out a metaphor with the audience as sheep being led to slaughter, but kill she does. In old-fashioned show-biz parlance, Arthur slays 'em.

Aside from her voice, which is most effective now when she's speak-singing, she still boasts the gifts she's refined throughout a busy stage and small-screen past--most famously in her two successful sitcoms, Maude and The Golden Girls. Her special ability to present bombast with nuance is intact. She instantly takes command of a stage; this one is populated only by a wing chair, an end table, a couple of flower arrangements and a piano at which composer-accompanist Billy Goldenberg perches with weary expectation. Throughout, Arthur remains in complete charge by virtue of her brass-tacks personality, her trove of tales, and her seasoned acting skills. (About her training: She, like Stritch, studied with Erwin Piscator. But who didn't in the '40s, at least for a class or two?)

There is nothing predictable about the songs Arthur sings--no pieces of material that are especially associated with her, other than "Bosom Buddies" and "The Man in the Moon" from Mame. She also quotes a campy punch line from "Garbage," the song Sheldon Harnick wrote for Ben Bagley's all-but-forgotten Shoestring Revue, but declines to actually sing the song. (She notes that, since Barbara Cook--this season's other soloing septuagenarian--no longer does "Glitter and Be Gay," she has no call to do "Garbage.")

Rather, Arthur's song-bag is full of surprises. Recalling the time she spent playing alongside Lotte Lenya in the lauded '50s production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera, she emotes her way impressively through "Pirate Jenny." Not wanting to leave Weill behind quite so quickly, she act-sings the resigned "It Never Was You," for which Maxwell Anderson supplied the poetic lyrics. Arthur mentions learning from Mabel Mercer, then segues into "Isn't He Adorable," a ditty Cy Coleman and most likely Carolyn Leigh wrote for cabaret's late and still lamented first lady. Perhaps in tacit recollection of her own divorce from Gene Saks, Arthur gives solemn weight to the Marilyn Bergman-Alan Bergman-John Mandel song "Where Do You Start?" Perhaps in deference to Goldenberg--who, looking like Menasha Skulnik in a tuxedo, gives solid yet lyrical support at the piano--she also includes "Fifty Percent," the questionable aria about settling for less that he carpentered with the Bergmans for Ballroom. Arthur even tries something racy in "What Do You Give a Nudist for Her Birthday?"

During the intermissionless proceedings, Arthur also walks the line between good and bad taste with that deliberate gait so familiar to fans and detractors of the activist Maude. Like the television characters she portrayed and whom she greatly helped to define, she derives pleasure from seeing how far she can go when speaking her mind on both important and trivial issues. She gets a hand when she congratulates Vermont on its new law allowing same-sex marriages. (This is applause she reportedly didn't always hear when she was touring with the show.) Arthur also gets loud laughs when she tells a few obscene jokes but, besides their being more naughty than vulgar, at least two of them are awfully old.

A few tunes before the end of her undeniably fast-moving turn, Arthur puts as much grit as she can muster into Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York," which is getting quite a workout these post-September 11 days. It may be that she was hitting this one across the footlights as she traveled the country, but it seems just as likely that it was added for the New York run. It's even possible that much of the show has been tweaked and stream-lined for New York, where references to Mabel Mercer and Tallulah Bankhead and Lotte Lenya and even Mae West can be especially effective. Arthur, Goldenberg, and Charles Randolph Wright are billed as the production creators, but Mark Waldrop and Richard Maltby, Jr., are also listed as consultants. No director is credited, by the way.

Comparing Arthur with Stritch may seem unfair, but it's actually a comparison that Arthur helps to instigate: Just before she leaves the stage, she says, "I want to thank you for coming and I am not going to sing 'I'm Still Here.'" At any other time, the remark would seem an amusing swipe at the many women of a certain age who insist on singing that Sondheim anthem in vindictive triumph. But, this year, Stritch is singing it a few blocks away; and so, for those in the know, Arthur appears to be knocking the competition. (Those who are not in the know and for whom the song isn't a household reference may have no idea what the hell the lady's talking about.)

Arthur doesn't have to make any "I'm Still Here" cracks. Just by being as potent a stage presence as she is in Bea Arthur on Broadway Just Between Friends, she proves incontrovertibly that she's still here and absolutely welcome.