Joseph Stein and Stan Daniels’ “Enter Laughing” is the 32-year-old musicalization of Stein’s 45-year-old comedy adaptation of Carl Reiner’s 50-year-old memoir. York Theater Company’s revival of the show presents two compelling reasons for musical comedy fans to make a trip to the York’s digs in the subcellar of Citicorp Center. One is the valedictory performance of wily old scene-stealer George S. Irving; the other is a surprisingly fine performance by wily young scene-stealer Josh Grisetti.
Irving, who in a month or so will turn 86, has been tickling audiences longer than just about any actor still trodding the boards; he made his Broadway debut in 1943 as a cowman in the original cast of “Oklahoma!”
Here he re-creates the role he played back in 1976, when “So Long, 174th Street” (as the musical was originally called) limped through two weeks at the long-gone Harkness Theater. Irving seems to play his role of Marlowe, a grand stage director of the old school now down and out, with his eyes shut; he can convulse the audience without lifting one of those craggy eyebrows, and does so repeatedly.
Countering Irving every step of the way is Grisetti, whose most prominent stage credit up to now was playing supporting roles in the Las Vegas production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” Grisetti has a hawk-like nose, too many teeth and — when he dances — legs that seem to want to spring off on their own, bringing to mind Ray Bolger. What’s more, he looks like he has been studying with (or simply studying) Mark Rylance.
It’s too early to say whether he can follow in the footsteps of Alan Arkin, who created the role in the 1963 play, but Grisetti displays a welcome ability to turn his character’s discomfort into cascades of laughter.
The musical itself retains the same flaw that marked its original run, namely a clumsy and ineffective score. Stein’s work is extremely funny; the show’s nonmusical portions, seemingly pulled intact from the play, work better now than in the unfortunate 1976 production, which was sabotaged by the presence of 44-year-old box office star Robert Morse in the role of the teenaged Reiner.
At the York, the play portions border on the hysterical, with patrons rocking back and forth in their underupholstered seats. When Irving “directs” Grisetti, and when the latter rehearses tortured love scenes with Janine LaManna (as the great director’s daughter of a certain age, lusting after the youngster), “Enter Laughing” plays as well as 91-year-old Stein — who has been in constant attendance — could desire.
But the problem with this tuner is the tunes. Composer-lyricist Daniels was a TV man known as one of the producers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later of “Taxi.” In his only musical attempt, Daniels turned out a steady stream of one-joke songs in which the single joke is so overworked, it makes Mel Brooks look like Frank Loesser.
Lyrics abound with gags about schmucks, bazooms, boobies, bong-bongs, thingamabobs, twits, shtupping, banging and more. These land laughs in a scatter-shot manner, but the artless songs serve only to interrupt the very funny scenes from the play. If you’ve always pined for someone to write a march song that goes “I Touched Her Breast,” Daniels is your man. Irving is able to pull off a ditty about “screwing Dolores Del Rio,” but credit the singer, not the song.
The York has assembled a loving production, with artistic director James Morgan providing scenery that works amusingly well within the limited space. An outgrowth of York’s Musicals-in Mufti series, the piece is deftly staged by Stuart Ross, with numerous sight gags supplementing Stein’s comedy.
LaManna, big-voiced Emily Shoolin (as Wanda, the girl from 174th Street), Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker head an enthusiastic supporting cast. Music director Matt Castle leads the band of three from his piano, stepping in with a surprise assist that generates several enormous laughs.
The clumsy score killed the show’s prospects back in 1976, when it sounded appallingly desperate alongside edgier new musicals like “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago.” “Enter Laughing” at the York is more than funny enough to keep the amateurish songs from damaging the evening’s hilarity.