Although he first came to popularity in America in the waning years of the Cold War, Yakov Smirnoff has not lost his way with a joke. His new comedy show As Long As We Both Shall Laugh, which is playing two nights a week at the American Airlines Theatre, is not only every bit as funny as you'd expect from this fine comedian, it's also a heartwarming and inspiring antidote to conflicts raging at home and abroad. For it is primarily a love story, of exactly the kind we need now: The story of one man's love for the United States.
According to Smirnoff, that love was cultivated after he and his family escaped Communist Russia for America in the mid-1970s. Though Smirnoff explains that he was always interested in pursuing comedy as a career, it was only upon arriving in the United States that he possessed the freedom to express himself in the way he chose. While life wasn't easy at first -- he and his family had to live in a very cheap, small apartment and they survived primarily on the kindness of others -- he persisted. Eventually, Smirnoff achieved his dreams and was able to provide the kind of life for his family that he always wanted.
These aspects of As Long As We Both Shall Laugh are the most inspiring and moving. Smirnoff brings the contrasts between the United States and Communist Russia --and, by extension, many other countries in the world -- alive through his anecdotes. The prejudices and dangers faced by him and his family when they made the decision to pursue freedom in America are sobering testaments to how far we've come in the last 25 years or so. At times, while detailing for the audience his experiences -- e.g., his mother's reaction to his father's decision to move or the priceless gift Smirnoff received from a woman with whom he was romantically involved in Russia -- Smirnoff is visibly moved to the verge of tears. Though ostensibly a standup comedy act, the show teeters on the edge of true theater more than once.
But not even the serious nature of many of Smirnoff's stories can mask the tremendous amount of humor in As Long As We Both Shall Laugh; indeed, he discovers a great deal of humor in simple things that most of us take for granted and is able to provide his own unique perspective on the human condition. At work, at home, and during the immigration process, Smirnoff found nuggets of humor that helped him survive.
The lightness of spirit that he developed during his trials and tribulations is what makes him so ingratiating as a performer. Smirnoff is happy to impart his wisdom, funny or not, to anyone willing to listen, yet when his prepared comments are interrupted by a good-natured rib from the audience, for example, he enjoys the diversion and the joke as much as anyone. His trademark intake of a laugh -- developed, he explains, because laughing out loud in Communist Russia was significantly frowned upon -- seems so much a part of him that it can't help but put a smile on your face.
The show is divided into two acts: The first describes Smirnoff's life in Russia and subsequent relocation to the United States, while the second focuses more on his family and his romantic relationships. Both halves complement each other nicely. He skilfully intertwines the stories, allowing for unanswered questions and dramatic movement that give the show a climax and a denouement lacking in many standup comedy routines.
The show is suitable for most of the family; some references may go over younger childrens' heads, but parents will find little of which to disapprove in the material. Smirnoff's "guy next door" persona and his habit of relating to both the outsider and the insider in all of us makes him easy to accept as something of a comic authority. His style of presentation is uniquely his own, an off-the-cuff form of delivery that makes his comments seem entirely natural. If the transitions between segments lack a bit of polish, his work within them is very smooth and well paced; nothing can stop him once he gets on a roll.
If Smirnoff survived and escaped Communism, what could possibly stand in his way? Whether in terms of marriage to a woman or to a country -- the show's title refers to his proposed alternate wedding vow, equally applicable to both -- Smirnoff's love and devotion shine through, providing a highly enjoyable evening of comedy and, yes, insight. Little of what is here is truly trenchant, but that's beside the point; Smirnoff is much more interested in entertaining, inspiring, and reminding everyone that the U.S. remains the Land of Opportunity, a place where success can be just around the corner if one is talented and works hard.