Going solo

NEW YORK — Whether it’s the high cost of mounting ensemble productions or the dearth of commercially viable new plays, never before have so many Broadway stages echoed to the sound of just two feet as this fall, when five solo shows took up residence.

The roster includes Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, two comics whose early, cutting-edge work has evolved into significantly broader Hollywood celebrity; Mario Cantone, a gay-fringe cult comedian angling to expand his audience; Dame Edna Everage, the meta-drag alter ego of a 70-year-old Australian man; and Eve Ensler, a radical-feminist performance artist whose phenomenally influential previous work became a cultural milestone, bumping her from alternative venues to a mainstream stage.

The jury is still out on whether Crystal’s “700 Sundays” and Ensler’s “The Good Body” (which closed Dec. 19, a month earlier than originally planned) will be considered plays by the Tony Awards committee.

But these shows are not one-person dramas in the mold of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winner “I Am My Own Wife” or Tovah Feldshuh vehicle “Golda’s Balcony,” which went from Off Broadway to Broadway to national tours. (If talk of a tour proves correct, another adherent to this model may arrive in 2005, with Antony Sher’s National Theater hit “Primo,” based on Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s memoir “If This Is a Man.”)

With the exception of Crystal’s show, which looks back over the star’s childhood and the death of his parents — and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the biggest hit of the bunch — the fall’s new solo acts don’t trace a narrative arc through personal reflections in the manner of “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” still the most robustly theatrical of recent one-person shows.

And while a cast of one may lower overheads, it also creates insurance headaches and box office chaos with returned or exchanged tickets when the star misses performances. Crystal canceled a number of previews due to illness; Whoopi Goldberg also was out sick for four December weekend shows of the 20th-anni revival of her multicharacter breakthrough showcase “Whoopi.”

Somehow, a pre-show announcement along the lines of “The role of Dame Edna at tonight’s performance will be played by Brenda Blethyn” seems inconceivable.

Despite their relatively low cost — solo shows generally are capitalized at $1 million-$1.5 million — only “700 Sundays” and “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance” look like good bets to recoup their investments. Excluding the possibility of tours, Cantone’s “Laugh Whore,” “Whoopi” and “The Good Body” appear unlikely, or at least uncertain, to cover the costs of their limited runs.

While “Dame Edna” has been playing to between 78% and 89% capacity and “Whoopi” to 66%-83%, only “700 Sundays” has been consistently in the 90s. Houses for “Laugh Whore” got as high as 59% but averaged in the high 40s, while “The Good Body” peaked in the 40s, indicating the latter two performers may have been better suited to Off Broadway-size theaters.

So what makes a one-person show work on a Broadway stage?

Turning first to the most seasoned pro of the bunch, “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance” bears the fruits of creator Barry Humphries’ long experience. He’s been trotting out the iconic Australian housewife-megastar for decades in hit shows Down Under and in Britain before belatedly cracking the U.S. market in the past six years.

Humphries knows his audience, and his audience knows what it’s getting with Edna and her interactive tough love. The performer makes his shows culturally specific, zealously harnessing the current zeitgeist and — regardless of how much recycling takes place of the acid one-liners and withering assessments of audience members — he creates a convincing illusion that each show is a spontaneous, one-off event, shaped in large part by the hapless handful in the front rows who catch Edna’s gaze.

A warmly engaging personality, Ensler also knows her audience, though her current producers were perhaps less canny. The woman who put the word “vagina” on everyone’s lips may have seemed ready for Broadway, but the early closing notice posted by “The Good Body” indicates that belly bulge is no match for genitalia in terms of box office draw.

Still, like Ensler’s groundbreaking “The Vagina Monologues,” the new show speaks directly to women’s experience across the divide of a culture that holds up impossible ideals of female physical perfection. And whether or not you’re a woman with fat issues, there’s something stirringly contagious about hearing the murmurs, laughs and even sobs of recognition that ripple through the mostly female aud at the Booth Theater.

The current Broadway solo performer who knows his public best of all is Crystal. In addition to his considerable popularity as a comic, film actor and multiple Oscar emcee, his winning combination of Jews, jazz, sports and sentimentality was a foolproof formula for Broadway.

For the seven perfs Dec. 6-12, “700 Sundays” did a remarkable $775,486, even topping the best week of 2003 revival, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” until then the top week for any play in recent history. The day after it opened, Crystal’s show took in a whopping $600,000 in sales, trouncing the $413,000 for “Long Day’s Journey” and the $250,000 for last season’s hit “A Raisin in the Sun” revival.

With its massive advance, Crystal’s show seems a no-brainer to extend beyond its scheduled 16-week engagement (through March 5). He’s also being talked about to step into Hugh Jackman’s shoes and host the Tony Awards ceremony next year.

While “Sundays,” written by Crystal with help from “Saturday Night Live” vet Alan Zweibel, felt overscripted and calculated to this reviewer, the material shrewdly mines the universality of issues pertaining to family and loss, with an intimacy and generosity of heart to which auds can readily connect.

The absence of a narrative throughline and of more personal revelations is what prevents “Mario Cantone: Laugh Whore” from being something more than superlative standup. While the “Sex and the City” regular draws on his Italian-American family for comic inspiration (the nods to his gutter-mouthed sister Camille are particularly rich), Cantone does so without exposing much of himself.

But “Laugh Whore” has many points in its favor, notably the star’s inexhaustible, irreverent fascination with celebrity, an American obsession given a singularly punishing workout here. Almost every observation in some way references fame or the famous, and it’s there that the show gains coherence. Even the stock evergreens of gay comedians — Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing among them — yield fresh laughs through Cantone’s razor-sharp impersonations.

And like Dame Edna, Cantone ricochets off the audience, absorbing energy in his appealingly abrasive, manic way, especially when soliciting requests for his interpretation of great stars of the past doing “The Vagina Monologues.”

Cantone’s, Crystal’s and Humphries’ shows feel too long at two hours-plus, indicating solo acts may be best confined to a tight 90 minutes. They also are no less needful than any other kind of theater of a director to take the reins, regardless of the performer’s stature and ownership of the material.

The absence of a guiding hand can be felt in “Whoopi,” in which the star too often digresses and riffs self-indulgently, diluting the comic spell of her still-inspired characters and refreshingly forthright political rants.

Design, also, is a key element and a tough one to get right on solo shows. In part, the challenge of making solo shows work on Broadway is audience resistance to an $80-$100 ticket that buys no more than some schmo on a stool on a bare stage. Even theatergoers with more catholic tastes tend to look for shows that offer more expansive design and performance aspects than a solo stint generally provides.

The bare stage worked fine for Goldberg 20 years ago, when there was the thrill of discovery. Now, it adds to the feeling of a recycled venture invested with insufficient fresh thought.

Ensler’s show has the opposite problem: Its video projections are witty and illuminating, but the photo-shoot environment of umbrellas and mannequins just looks like so much clutter.

Crystal’s tract house facade is generically serviceable (again, effectively enhanced by video), while “Dame Edna” economically suggests gaudy plush with its pink curtains and chandeliers.

Arguably the example to be followed here is the low-concept, high-glitz look of “Laugh Whore,” in which director Joe Mantello, designer Robert Brill and lighting team Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer create a vibrant setting from a simple, solid rear wall of lights.

Ultimately, while none comes close to the theatrical spell of a great play or buoyant musical, each of the fall solo shows boasts its own strengths, from Cantone’s sassy profanity to Edna’s infectious self-adoration, from Ensler’s self-exploratory sincerity to Crystal’s smooth professionalism and Goldberg’s edgy outspokenness.

Maybe producers scouting the next solo act to book onto a Broadway stage should be seeking a loudmouthed yet emotionally evolved gay, black, Jewish feminist cross-dresser. Now, isn’t there a support group for those?

(Robert Hofler and Zachary Pincus-Roth contributed to this report.)

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