The comic outpourings of Will Durst, Dwayne Perkins, Iris Bahr and John Viener are worth the price of admission alone, but the lackluster score by Hollye Leven just gets in the way. Helmer Sue Wolf keeps the action moving forward, but she and her ensemble can't overcome the energy drain that occurs whenever someone bursts into song.

The tagline for this tuner– “the musical with a punchline” — is quite apt. There is a strong thematic parallel between the 1988 Tom Hanks starrer “Punchline” and this legit take on four angst-ridden wannabe comics striving to make it at a Gotham laugh spot. The comic outpourings of standup pros Will Durst, Dwayne Perkins, Iris Bahr and John Viener are worth the price of admission alone, but the lackluster 15-number score by Hollye Leven (who also wrote the book) just gets in the way. Helmer Sue Wolf keeps the action moving steadily forward, but she and her hard-working ensemble can’t overcome the energy drain that occurs whenever someone bursts into song.

It’s not that the music is bad, impressively accompanied as it is by a trio led by music director-keyboardist Phil Parlapiano. Leven’s programmatic songs, usually warbled by the adroit Greek-chorus duo of Jason Paige and Becky Baeling, serve as credible commentary to the action. In fact, Baeling’s comically sensual “Sometimes You’ve Got to Love Somebody” addresses the sad but true reality that, for comics on the road, sex is usually reduced to joyless couplings with strangers for no other reason but to pass the time.

While on the subject of that self-serving animal known as the male comic, Bahr joins Baeling and film/TV star Ruta Lee in a clever gender-bashing doo-wop ditty (“Men”).

The inherent problem with this show as a book musical is that the standups overpower the songs and Leven’s predictable plot. The action is set in a Manhattan club owned by Ruta Lee’s monumentally manipulative but nurturing Iris, whose self-aggrandizing “The Incredible Story of Me” is eerily evocative of Mitzi Shore of Hollywood’s Comedy Store fame.

To keep the comics in line, she tells them an important casting director will be in the house this evening. The ambition and angst of each is spotlighted as the four vie for a favored spot in the lineup.

Along the way, the plot deals with such comedy career issues as solvency (“Do What You Gotta Do to Survive”), loser gigs (“Nowheresville”), industrial shows, cruise ships and the never-ending dream of making it in Hollywood (“Career Moves”).

The show’s premise becomes meaningless once the comics are at the mic. Durst’s “old pro” Art is ostensibly a suicidal, has-been sitcom vet who has hit bottom. In truth, this five-time Emmy nominee is a fine political humorist who has been dubbed “a modern-day Will Rogers” and “heir apparent to Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory.”

In two stints, he amply demonstrates his credentials: He admits to being perplexed that Bill and Hillary Clinton recently received a combined $20 million for their ostensibly tell-all books yet just a few years earlier swore before Congress that “they couldn’t remember a thing.”

Also receiving two turns at the standup mike, Viener’s Zack and Perkins’ Will offer their own comical views on life. Viener mines his upbringing as a child of privilege as ironic laff fodder. Perkins drolly juxtaposes the shifting realities of being a black man in today’s society.

Completing the quartet is Bahr, a deadpan delight as Hannah, low comic in the pecking order who makes the most of her one turn in the spotlight.

“Funny Business” is long for a one-acter. A rethinking of the plot, fewer tunes and an increased emphasis on the standup talent would do much to give this effort the legs it needs for its intended assault on the Great White Way.

Funny Business

Upstairs at the Coronet Theater, Los Angeles; 99 seats; $39.50 top

Production

Hollyepeno Prods. and Liz Heller present a musical play in one act, with book and music by Hollye Leven. Directed by Sue Wolf.

Creative

Choreography, Raymond del Barrio; musical direction, Phil Parlapiano. Sets, Jerry Buszek; lights, Adam H. Greene; sound, Jake Davis; costumes, Barbara Lempel. Opened, reviewed May 9, 2004; runs through June 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

Art - Will Durst Iris - Ruta Lee Male Singer - Jason Paige Female Singer - Becky Baeling Zack - John Viener Will - Dwayne Perkins Hannah - Iris Bahr Blake - Adam K. Arian
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