TV jokemeister Alan Zweibel’s backstage play about his 15-year friendship with Gilda Radner raises formidable expectations in an audience hoping to see Roseanne Rosanna-Dana cq resurrected. The challenge of a play about a comedy writer and a comedienne is that it has to be funny. The challenge of a play about a long and complicated friendship is that it has to have human characters. “Bunny Bunny” splits the difference and opts for the sitcom solution: cute eccentricity instead of depth, and bits instead of dialogue. Entertaining for a while, shamelessly tearjerky for longer, this is not so much a play as an amusing eulogy.
It begins, as such things often do, with the First Meeting: It’s 1975 and Zweibel is hiding behind a fake tree waiting to be auditioned for what would become the fabled “Saturday Night Live” show; Radner, also nervous, hides with him and asks for his help. Her audition piece, a hilarious routine in which she pretends to be Julie Andrews’ singing parrot (Paula Cale as Radner doing Andrews gets the accent and manner uncannily right), is one of the funniest moments in “Bunny Bunny.”
The show proceeds in skits knitted together by Zweibel’s narration, following the pair through their almost-affair, their other affairs, their meteoric successes, their marriages, movies, moves from coast to coast, to the diagnosis of cancer and Radner’s early death.
Walking a fine line between acting and impersonating, Cale is adorable and winning. Wisely, the script never calls for performances of the famous comic characters Zweibel created for Radner. Bruno Kirby’s task is less fraught, since Zweibel is not known to millions; he plays the writer rumpled, self-conscious, naive and rather less neurotic than the role suggests. His gift for physical comedy (there’s a wonderful moment of running through streets and up stairs) is underutilized, and in the standup tradition, he tends to deliver lines as though he were delivering lines. Neither actor, though, is fully capable of making us believe that these two characters are people.
Too often a punchy one-liner is weakened when Zweibel stretches it into a belabored routine. (Phone call from Zweibel in Amsterdam to Radner back home: “I tried to pick up a girl at the Anne Frank House.” She says, “Run that by me again.” And so he does, with a lengthy explanation.)
Much of the humor is visual: Set designer David Gallo’s clever, cartoonish backdrops create much of the show’s charm as they flop down or pop up for scene changes. And as a human cartoon, Alan Tudyk provides some fun by playing all the walk-on roles, from a fat janitor to Andy Warhol to a Pakistani taxi driver to a teary wife.
As Radner tells Zweibel, “Comedy is about everything that’s wrong with life.” Despite its sweet charm and funny moments, “Bunny Bunny” asks such simple, adolescent questions about life and death that it never sees that we need what Gilda needed — some way to “make cancer funny.” Sitcom just isn’t redemptive, nor theatrical for that matter.