By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
Laughing Room Only
Ruth Gottschall, Cheryl Stern, Darrin Baker,
Robert Creighton, and Barry Finkel,
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street
A Nederlander Theatre
Producers: Jyll Rosenfeld, Jon Stall, and James Scibelli
Larry Weinberg Press
Music and Lyrics by Doug Katsaros
Book by Dennis Blair & Digby Wolfe
Additional Material by Jackie Mason
Set Design by Michael Anania
Costume Design by Thom Heyer
Lighting Design by Paul D. Miller
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski
General Management: Theatre Production Group
Casting Director: Norman Meranus
Hair Design by Jon Jordan
Orchestrations by Doug Katsaros
Dance Arrangements by Ian Herman
Technical Supervisor: Michael W. Kelly
Production Stage Manager: C. Randall White
Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Joseph Baker
Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld
Directed by Robert Johanson
November 15, 2003
I miss the Jackie Mason of yesteryear. Because I am such a longtime fan of Jackie, as he is known around the globe, I have heard all his jokes, those about being Jewish, Italian, Latino, French, Austrian, and on and on. The warm-hearted humor that pokes fun at ethnic characteristics used to send the audience rolling into the aisles with uncontrollable laughter, as we all envisioned our own foibles and quirks in his deadpan jokes. However, the Jackie Mason of now is a feistier, bullish, and cutting ethnic humorist, who, in this matinee, announced his gratitude that there were no Puerto Ricans present, because he travels to Puerto Rico every year to visit his hubcaps.
If only this were the meanest, but that was, as usual, reserved for the French. This is where the next big change occurred, comparing this show to his previous ones, all of which I have seen. This show has a cast of characters, all of whom are talented and adorable, but not adorable enough for a laugh a minute event. So, to needle the French, Jackie placed a chanteuse by a lamppost to croon like Edith Piaf in a shiny, short trench and boots. When the "French Translator" was included, in a repeat version, the musical lyrics were revealed, and they referred to a horrendous smell emanating from her admirer, and worse. The subtext - if only we knew what the French were really singing, elegance would disappear. Ballet, opera, and Starbucks were the butt of additional humor, partly in rehashed jokes, and partly in skits, such as a Starbucks set -- Jewish star and money.
The vaudeville nature of some of today's humor was tasteless, such as two elderly ladies dressed in huge hats, confiding about sex with their husbands in very graphic innuendos and metaphors. There was also an Adam and Eve scene with one character as the apple. Adam and Eve were dressed in "naked" costumes, each sporting cushioned muscles, breasts, buttocks, and fig leaves. This was not a family matinee. Nor did it have to be. But, I've never been a vaudeville or slapstick fan. I just always loved Jackie Mason.
To be fair, the sets were fantastic and a propos (I admit it; I'm a Francophile with no disguise), there were silly plastic palm trees and monkeys in the Adam and Eve sequence, and the lamppost was very Parisian. The large brick walls, in blues and black, opened to windows and varying levels for the extra cast to perform little skits. Also, there were some very funny moments. The comments (although among the recycled) about the Latino TV stations, where everybody sings and dances, in contrast to all the other stations with disasters and crimes, war and famine, were still funny. But, Jackie's little spark, the way he always danced through this joke, seemed to be a memory. He seemed tired and frustrated, sometimes even angry with the audience for its silence.
Other recycled jokes involved the "Indian" cab drivers (aren't they from Pakistan now?), who take all the Jews to Newark Airport. The Newark part of the joke was new (who ends up in Newark, although the cab drivers do not seem to know streets without numbers), but the Indian "talk" was not. The Starbucks skit was new, but an expansion of Jackie's old monologues about the snob value of Chai Latte and Decaf Mochachino. These new jokes surround Americans' addiction with Starbucks and the extent we will go to satisfy urges for exotic "burnt coffee in a cardboard cup, where you stand up, clean up, and eat against the window". It was a cute skit, but the themes were re-used material.
Now, this is where the audience woke up and showed energy - Jackie finally got into politics, his forte. We are New Yorkers, and we love politics. I don't mind re-hashed Bush, Bill, Hillary, or Bloomberg jokes. Because political issues change daily, and the jokes take on new meaning and humor. These are hard times in the news -- a sad war, a sadder economy, corporate corruption, murder, and worse. We yearn for political humor, and Jackie does it best. In fact, no comedian has such an endearing quality, when it comes to poking fun at current events and political figures.
I would recommend that the next show eliminate the extra cast (even though they do a mean tap dance), eliminate the meaner ethnic humor, and eliminate re-hashed jokes (Jackie is brilliant, so why can't he write all new jokes; After all, this is Broadway!). What he should expand is the political humor, with current and well-balanced jokes that cross lines of political parties, taking aim at both conservatives and liberals (See Review of Bill Maher). An election year is almost here. Jackie lost a huge opportunity to help us laugh at the news and the newsmakers. It's not too late, even for this show, which has not yet opened.
As for ethnic humor, Jackie is a master, when he creates new material. His skits (since he wants company onstage) could have been a brief expansion of ethnic jokes; such as Italians, Poles, French, Jews, Germans, Latinos (there was a Latino skit, but it fell a bit flat), presented in tandem with the monologue, instead of switching from monologue to cast, in a fragmented fashion. (See Review of Polish Joke, a furiously funny, ethnic show).
As for vaudeville, where were the Viagra jokes, the age jokes, the cuter, adult humor? The posters and Playbill cover show Jackie with legs and heels, like Guido in Nine. But, the vaudeville was all in the silly skits, with some over-the-edge, antiquated sex-capades. Jackie Mason, where are you? Please come back as you were, when the audience almost rolled into the aisles with laughter, when there was "Laughing Room Only".
One new feature today was the Theater Development Fund's open-captioning, as Jackie's monologue and the musical lyrics were all simultaneously captioned in red, at the sides of the stage, for the hearing impaired. This was a fresh feature and less distracting than whistling hearing devices.