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Laughing Room Only

Darrin Baker, Jackie Mason, and Ruth Gottschall
in Laughing Room Only
(Photo © Bill Milne)
The woman behind me at Jackie Mason's Laughing Room Only thought the comedian's venture into revuesical territory was a laugh a minute. No, make that a laugh every 10 or 15 seconds: Almost from start to finish, she gave the show the best kind of on-site rave review.

When Mason sat at a piano and mimed playing, then pulled a candelabrum out of nowhere and set it atop the spinet a la Liberace, the lady giggled. When he asked if there were any Gentiles in the audience, got scattered applause from the balcony and then said, "The cheap seats," the lady squealed. When he made fun of people who pretend to love opera but who, when asked what an opera they've seen was about, say that "It's about three hours," the lady chortled. When he launched into a diatribe against the French, mocking their taste for snails and calling them "Paris-ites," the lady shrieked: "That's right, that's true." When he said that he'd turned down an offer to be driven somewhere by Ted Kennedy, the lady howled. And when Mason said of George W. Bush, "If he finds out he's President, it'll kill him," the lady guffawed.

Meanwhile, the man sitting next to her -- whom I took to be her husband -- was also having a high old time. He wasn't so much a laugher as a repeater: When he liked one of the couple hundred jokes Mason told during the two-act show, he repeated the punch line -- and he kept doing so, as if reiterating punch lines was the best technique for committing them to memory. I was forced to conclude that these two ticket-buyers represented Mason's target audience. For them, the comedian scored a bull's-eye with just about every comic arrow he shot; it seemed that the only gripe the laughing lady had was with a kitschy T-shirt, worn by a dancer, that featured a psychedelic Christ on its front.

On the other hand, since I was getting more of a kick out of the couple behind me than the comic before me, I had to conclude I'm not his target audience. To appropriate a phrase Mason utters frequently in the midst of comic hunks, I'm not "picking on" him. On the contrary: Although this is the first of his Broadway outings I've seen, I've always found him mildly-to-very amusing. Mason has the winning affect of a little guy who sends up pretension and foolishness by doing little verbal jigs around them. The near-mumble in which he speaks and the amused look he maintains also goes a long way toward sustaining my (limited) affection for the guy.

But the material! Since, as I say, I haven't seen Mason's previous meanderings on the Great White Way, I can't swear that he's told these jokes before, but the down-to-the-knee beards many of them wear suggest that he might have been telling them for years -- as have your average office-water-cooler funnymen. "It's about three hours?" Really! Grade school kids tell that one. And what's funny about lacing into The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables for being dark musicals? These tuners have been kidded for eons! (Sure, Mason throws in a Wicked reference, but it's almost an afterthought.)

Mason does occasionally make a genuinely funny topical comment -- e.g., one about Lipitor. But jokes that play off of nouvelle cuisine (a thing of the past), Picasso, Puerto Ricans stealing hubcaps (Mason says he goes to Puerto Rico to visit his hub caps), Henry Kissinger, and Richard Simmons add up to a show that Mason could have been doing a decade ago. To make matters worse, he has a tendency to tell a joke once and then tell it again in a slightly altered version, with the result that some of the twice-told wheezes are thrice told. And the one sequence of the show that's heavily tied to recent headlines -- a lambaste of the French -- is such shameless pandering to ideologically entrenched America-Firsters that even Rush Limbaugh might consider it beneath contempt.

(Center) Jackie Mason
(Back Row, l-r) Ruth Gottschall, Darrin Baker,
Barry Finkel, and Cheryl Stern
(Front) Robert Creighton in Laughing Room Only
(Photo © Bill Milne)
But how many of these lapses are Mason's fault? Although he's credited in the program as providing "additional material," the book is credited to Dennis Blair and Digby Wolfe. What book? Maybe by "book," what's meant is the show's set-up as a musical. The altered format is intended to differentiate this opus from the six previous enterprises that Mason has brought to Broadway since 1986. Yes, there are musical numbers: Mason introduces them all and performs in a few. Since "This Jew Can Sing" is about him (as so many of the 13 songs are), he raises his questionable baritone during it. In "Musical Chairs," he's pushed around in a chair on casters as part of a dance turn. (The choreography is by Michael Lichtefeld.) Mason also intones "Jackie's Signature Song," a sort of answer to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" and Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" but Mason's is about -- get ready for this! -- Zimbabwe. All of the songs are by Doug Katsaros, whose contributions are mystifying in light of his long and impressive bio; that also applies to the work of librettists Blair and Wolfe.

The five revuers who sing and dance their hearts out, mostly in material praising Mason, are Cheryl Stern, Ruth Gottschall, Darrin Baker, Robert Creighton, and Barry Finkel. (Any relation to Fyvush?) Early in the program, Stern comes out in a vinyl rain slicker and beret (costumes by Thom Heyer) to sing a song entirely in French (lamppost by set designer Michael Anania) about odeurs. One might guess that these hard-working entertainers are excusing their friends from showing up at the theater any time soon -- and director Robert Johanson may be doing the same.


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