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Laugh Whore

By New York City
Mario Cantone in Laugh Whore(Photo © Bill Streicher)
Mario Cantone in Laugh Whore
(Photo © Bill Streicher)
It would make sense for a review of the gleefully intense Mario Cantone to be printed entirely in capital letters. Heretofore, Cantone has almost always ranted through his act and through his acting, so much so that he took it on the chin from critics in last season's The Violet Hour for his over-the-top performance. Those who got a look at playwright Richard Greenberg's script, however, saw that Cantone's role was set out entirely in upper case letters. That's the kind of performance Greenberg et al. clearly wanted, and Cantone was an obvious go-to guy.

Because he makes a habit of coming on like a pit bull after a trouser leg, Cantone strikes some listeners as best enjoyed in short spurts. He was hilarious as Charlotte's wardrobe advisor in Sex and the City; usually, he'd arrive on screen, blast "hate it," and back off. You could say Cantone is an ideal second banana -- funny as a type, too extreme as a leading man. Now, however, he's essentially cast himself as the lead in a Broadway offering: He has expanded his club act and trotted it out as Laugh Whore, the first float in this year's parade of Great White Way solos. (Okay, Dame Edna has sidekicks, but she usually behaves as if she's on her audacious own.) To prove his staying power, Cantone has sanded down his sharper edges; as one of the T-shirts on sale in the lobby boasts, "I'll do whatever it takes."

A number of things that Cantone does will impress the pants off you. First, he's a terrific mimic. For various comic reasons -- or supposedly comic reasons -- he slips under the skins of Katharine Hepburn, Cher, Michael Jackson, Jim Morrison, Greer Garson, Barbara Stanwyck, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway, and Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret as they aroused each other in Viva Las Vegas. He's so dead-on with some of the imitations that the actual people, wherever they are, must be feeling mighty itchy. He misses a few, which is no great drawback; curiously, he does a wonderfully breathy and gawky Liza Minnelli but only a fair-to-middling Judy Garland. Go figure.

In the second half of his two-act turn, Cantone (rhymes with "rant, moan") talks much about his family. With a disarming blend of affection and excoriation, he describes holidays at home as well as a trip through Europe that he made with his sisters Marian and Camille. Marian's a health-nut nervous wreck, Camille's a smoker-drinker -- and by the time Cantone has polished them off as if he were Cinderella on a toot with her stepsisters, he's got the audience rolling. That's not to mention his mother's sisters and his father's brothers. The comedy here is based in reality and is all the more amusing for being recognizably human; as described, the family home decorations are all the funnier for being recognizably Maurice Valency-like.

Mario Cantone in Laugh Whore(Photo © Bill Streicher)
Mario Cantone in Laugh Whore
(Photo © Bill Streicher)
There's almost none of this newer, more accessible Cantone in the bada-boom first act. For a hip guy, the topics that he blows up like balloons to stick pins into are surprisingly antiquated. There's virtually nothing in the subject matter that couldn't have been said (and probably was said) by no later than the late 1980s. After a while, I began keeping a mental note of when his jokes could have been initially cracked: The gags about Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure could be vintage 1972; the ones about Cher's lousy singing diction might have rung out in 1967; and the Gloria Swanson material carries a 1950 postmark. The first-act closer, an extended impersonation of Liza in disconcerted concert, is an old notion -- but Cantone does it so well that all is forgiven.

To glam up Laugh Whore for Broadway -- and undoubtedly for television, since the production has been mounted by Showtime -- Joe Mantello was called in to direct, or perhaps simply to stand clear of Cantone's forceful trajectory and offer the occasional suggestion. Mantello, who guided Cantone in Assassins, tapped some of that revival's creative team for a reunion here. Set designer Robert Brill backs Cantone with a board of lights, much as he did in Assassins; this time, however, the drop recalls the strips of candy buttons once available at every penny-candy store. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer get sassy with the illumination, too: The Jim Morrison segment is very light-show-y, and when Cantone is Garland, they flash "Judy." (Cantone has the dizzy lady say something about being coached to remember who she is.) There's no costume designer credited, but Cantone, Jerry Dixon, and Harold Lubin are acknowledged for original songs -- including the title-song finale -- and the clever Tom Kitt is listed as musical director and arranger.

Declaring how thrilled he is to be on legit boards, Cantone remarks, "So much has changed on Broadway in the last 10 years." He can say that again! The first show I saw in the Cort Theatre, where he's currently housed, was the 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning Diary of Anne Frank. Now the venerable site, often denigrated for being east of Broadway, has as its occupant a stand-up comic. Well, he may not cop a Pulitzer, but he sure takes some sort of cake.


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