Frank Gorshin nails the character of George Burns in the new solo play “Say Goodnight, Gracie” by Rupert Holmes. But it’s more significant for Gorshin, and his audience, that Holmes and director John Tillinger provide a vehicle that draws the actor out from behind the impressionist.
The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale showcases Gorshin in a slick, poignantly entertaining vehicle with immediate commercial potential. Road playhouses starving for bankable non-musicals are certain clients, and a choice of Gotham locales is a likelihood.
“Say Goodnight, Gracie” offers a rare symbiosis of box office and artistic ingredients that break through the litany of concerns (and complaints) regarding the solo show formula. High on the plus side is the appealing image and affable character of the late George Burns, still fresh in the public’s mind.
Another is the deft manner in which playwright Holmes incarnates the presence of the equally lovable Gracie Allen without putting her onstage. She’s represented in re-creations of old radio broadcasts (using the voice of Holly Faris) and clips from the Burns & Allen TV show of the ’50s. Jack Benny is also included, via Eddie Carroll radio voiceovers and TV clips.
Gorshin added the Burns character to his nightclub act about two years ago, but it was his thesping resume that convinced Holmes and lead producer Bill Franzblau to make the match.
After the first pleasant shock of recognition, Gorshin sustains the 75-minute drama with a likable, touching and bittersweet performance that remains centered on playwright Holmes’ dramatic focus: The enduring relationship between Burns and Allen, an emotional attachment that remained strong even after her death in 1964.
The action evolves swiftly from the opening scene, a simple but charming conceit that breaks down the theatrical fourth wall, normally one of the format’s most troublesome artistic hurdles. A freshly deceased Burns (who died in 1996 at the age of 100) arrives in God’s waiting room and is told he must audition to gain entry to Heaven. The toastmaster asks for a few things to properly do a performance, including stage lighting and an audience. Resulting downstage illumination reveals the crowd, and the fourth wall dissolves.
From that moment, no technical or other special effects threaten the integrity of the script’s universe. Director Tillinger is free to coax the play out from its fictitious setting to paint a broad-brush panorama of both vaudeville and New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, Gorshin stays locked onto the Burns persona via haunting vocal and facial characteristics, with only a thin gray wig and round-rimmed eyeglasses to complete the evocation.
Both accessible and dramatically satisfying in its infancy, “Say Goodnight, Gracie” could nonetheless be improved by some necessary polishing of the monologue.