Whoopi Goldberg in Whoopi(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Whoopi Goldberg in Whoopi
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Would anyone out there be surprised to learn that Whoopi Goldberg utters an expletive before she completes the first sentence of Whoopi, the updated version of her 1984 star-making one-person show? Probably not. But what is it with her? Goldberg's bright as they come and perceptive about contemporary politics, yet she frequently couches her astute, usually hilarious observations in language that's guaranteed to alienate the patrons for whom her comments might be the most beneficial -- i.e., the folks who aren't covered by the rubric "preaching to the converted."

At the performance I attended, a woman seated down front was so quickly fed up with what Goldberg's character Fontaine was saying that she grabbed her fur coat and, her brow censoriously furrowed, headed for the door within 10 or 12 minutes of the start of the show. My guess is that she left not just because of Goldberg's attack on George W. Bush, which reached its highpoint when she reminded the crowd how the President had waved at Stevie Wonder during a White House visit and the uninformed gesture was visibly too much for the First Lady; I suspect that the departing patron would cite Goldberg's obscenities as an excuse to dismiss everything she'd heard and to leave before hearing any more.

Don't get me wrong; I believe that first-rate comedy almost always falls short of the mark if it offends no one, but here we're talking about strategies of offense. Telling the disillusioning truth with humor, whether or not it's going to put off some listeners, is one thing -- but championing vulgarity is another thing entirely. In Goldberg's case, it hampers an entertainer/social critic who can otherwise be adorable and has one of the most disarming smiles in show business. Her approach registers as self-destructive. (Recently, it gave Goldberg's "I'm a big loser" line for Slim-Fast a revised meaning that may partially explain why she's back on Broadway, re-validating her bona fides.)

As Fontaine, Goldberg gets off a barrage of terrific lines. I'll resist the temptation to repeat more than one; that would be unfair to Goldberg and those planning to see her, even though she occasionally appears to be improvising, which means she'll likely be making cracks tomorrow she didn't make today. Just let me say that a favorite quip of mine in the show as it stood a few days before opening was this on same-sex marriage: "If you don't want gay people to be married, don't marry one." Goldberg as Fontaine is a laugh-getter, despite -- or for some patrons, because of -- the four- and twelve-letter-spouting. But what's truly fascinating about this figure, who's back on dope as a result of the current political climate, is Goldberg's need to put what are obviously her own thoughts into someone else's mouth. Sure, Goldberg plays characters, but this can be a distancing mechanism -- as it is here. When someone in the audience yelled out, "We love you, Whoopi," Fontaine responded, "I'll tell her when I see her." Of course, she's fooling no one into thinking that she's strictly doing character comedy. Fontaine is speaking for Goldberg, just as Lily Tomlin took questions from the audience as Edith Ann and responded as her unedited self.

In Whoopi, the potty-mouthed Fontaine is only the first of five characters that Goldberg plays. Two are new; three, including Fontaine, are returning to give updated views of their worlds from 1984's Whoopi Goldberg. Newcomer Lurleen appears to have arrived in town with Eve Ensler, who's doing The Good Body only two blocks away. Both Lurleen and Ensler are interested in woman's shapes and the effects of Botox, etc. Fanning herself as if she's a nexus of hot flashes, Lurleen questions the benefits of having botulism injected into her face. The other newcomer, a Law & Order fan with fascistic leanings, speaks with the dulcet tones of a proselytizing new-ager. Maintaining that she has great feelings for the oneness of the universe or some such bilge, she has a surprise up her sleeve that won't be divulged. (Throughout the show -- essentially a stand-up routine for which no set designer or costume designer is credited -- Goldberg wears denim trousers. No director is listed, either -- although producer Mike Nichols, who directed Goldberg in 1984, is credited in the Playbill in very large type.)

Repeats from Goldberg's last outing include the unnamed, physically challenged woman who's pleasantly startled to find that she's loved and is about to get married. There's less good news for the nameless 13-year-old surfer girl (or valley girl, maybe?) who's in the process of accepting the unfortunate consequences of a self-imposed abortion. By the end of the show, Goldberg has elicited many guffaws and has occasionally moralized, yet the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts. Ironically, her most engaging if least toned down character is Fontaine. That's because Goldberg appears to be most engaged when she's most herself, no matter what name she uses.