Niagara Falls and Sylvester Stallone might seem fairly old and irrelevant targets for humor, though you’re not long into Jackie Mason’s latest solo turn before a method to his comic madness becomes clear. “If it’s in the news, it’s in the show,” promises the subheading to Mason’s third West End gig, which begs the question: How much hilarity is there, really, to be gleaned from recent weeks’ bewildering and frightening events? The answer, if you’re Mason, is to lace the tried and tested (British weather, food, and attitudes toward sex are always good for a yuk) with uncharted territory: Presumably, not even Mason could ever have imagined he would be plundering the Taliban for comic titillation.
The result is a show that by necessity walks a far more dangerous tightrope than Mason has before, with an anthrax-inspired riff early on — the now-ominous line “The check is in the mail,” chortles Mason, should exempt Jews from having to pay bills for years — offering proof that an old reliable isn’t afraid of a new challenge. (He even has a so-called “anthrax walk” to add to his repertoire of bodily contortions.) Bush gets it, as does Ariel Sharon, along with Arafat (“the guy with the dish towel”). Indeed, so accelerated has the news become in these bizarre times that references to Clinton’s adulterous tendencies almost seem antique.
Mason remains the same lovably belligerent self that has become a Broadway and now London mainstay, following up various aspersions — “That’s not nice to say,” he offers by way of apology — with the clincher: “But it’s true.” Latecomers come in for their share of lethal remarks, as do people seated in the first few rows, which may make those toward the back of the funnel-like Queens Theater doubly pleased to be placed at such a remove. His broadside of choice is still “Nazi bastards,” his impersonations as uncannily good as ever (the Churchill one seems especially well-drilled), even if a Sinatra sequence far outlasts its welcome. It’s in that context that the jibes at the likes of Stallone and nouvelle cuisine — the price of sorbet prompts its own onslaught — seem to occupy a different landscape, as if Mason were seeking refuge in some now-vanished, less risky time.
Occasionally, you can’t help but wish a director were on hand to lend a useful eye, or at least some outsider who could have checked facts in advance — “latte,” for instance, isn’t a French word (though Mason’s assault on the “total shithouse” that, he says, is Starbucks would register in any language). And the Maury Yeston musical “Titanic” — unseen in London — hardly ran eight years on Broadway, even if Mason’s reductive precis of the surprise Tony-winner brings the evening to a silly and surprisingly endearing close.
Perhaps it’s precisely one’s awareness of the unsuitability right now of silliness that makes “The Millennium Show” more of a potential landmine than Mason’s previous outings to date. “When I work this out, it will be a sensation,” he says following his comic analysis of our new and sometimes absurd war in which, as Mason points out, “we keep bombing caves.” By contrast, burnt coffee and Lamborghini cars seem like awfully safe satiric targets, an observation intended not so much as a criticism of Mason but as a sign of how significantly his world — indeed, all our worlds — have moved on.