Fans craving an audience with a beloved TV star are obviously the target audience for Bea Arthur’s solo show at the Booth, and judging by a recent preview, their appetite for affectionate pseudo-intimacy, unencumbered by much in the way of interesting entertainment, is being heartily satisfied. Theatergoers seeking more substantial rewards will have to look elsewhere — say to the Neil Simon Theater, where another septuagenarian actress is holding court, to rather more thrilling effect.
The show’s subtitle — “Just Between Friends” — indicates the cozy, casual atmosphere. So do the star’s bare feet (long story). Indeed, Arthur is admirably upfront about the evening’s inconsequential, even trivial nature: How else to explain the decision to begin with tips for cooking lamb and end with suggestions for what to do with the leftovers? In between these disarming culinary bookends is an hour and a half of mostly calorie-free theater: The star reminisces haphazardly about her career onstage and in the “little box,” sing-speaks her way through a dozen ditties, tells a few dirty jokes.
The audience greets it all with indiscriminate affection that matches the show’s undiscriminating attitude. Although Arthur at one point recalls the “great writers and directors” who shaped the characters she played on her two hit TV shows, she has chosen to return to Broadway after an absence of a few decades without benefit of either: Arthur and her pal at the piano, Billy Goldenberg, are credited with creating the show, although a trio of consultants and collaborators are mentioned in the program.
As a result, midway through this odd, wayward evening of song and story it was hard to resist the impulse to stand up and shout, “Is there a writer in the house?” The bizarre juxtapositions of the musical selections, the aimless yet canned-sounding anecdotes and the mediocrity of the comic material aren’t hindering audience involvement, however. Celebrity worship is essentially a one-way activity; it doesn’t much matter what the celebrity is doing while it’s taking place. Arthur could probably work her way through her entire recipe box and the audience would respond with the same exuberance.
The weakness of the material is nevertheless a shame, because Arthur clearly still possesses brilliant comic timing, and the field-marshal-in-a-caftan persona made famous on “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” is an indelibly amusing creation. Beaming at the audience’s rapturous entry applause, Arthur milks it semi-mockingly, then turns to the wings and croaks, “OK, Billy, you can come out now,” as if speaking to a docile child. The gimlet glare is still in working order, the deadpan asides slide out with incomparable finesse. But without meaty material to support it, a comic persona isn’t much to hang a show on.
Housed in a cabaret space, the evening probably wouldn’t seem as flimsy as it does, and certainly the musical segments would be more comfortably accommodated. Goldenberg is deferential in his occasional scripted interaction with Arthur, and always delicate and inventive in his support at the piano. Arthur’s attitude toward him careens around amusingly: One minute he’s a houseboy, the next a musical genius.
But the musical repertoire is surreal and mostly unexciting. A comic song whose title pretty much says it all, “What Can You Get a Nudist For Her Birthday?,” is followed by an undistinguished Cy Coleman-James Lipton ditty, “Isn’t He Adorable?” The Sturm und Drang of “Pirate Jenny” (Arthur appeared in the original U.S. production of “Threepenny Opera”) is followed in short order by the arrival, on tape, of the theme from “Maude,” to which Arthur vaguely sings along for a few bars. The singing voice is a deep, rugged belt; Arthur is best when talking her way up and down a song’s vocal line, though this is an approach that palls quickly.
In any case, attempts at more intense interpretations simply seem out of place in the scattershot context of the show: Arthur’s take on “Some People” is a bit fussy and not terribly distinctive, and the plaintive beauty of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “It Never Was You” really requires vocal and interpretive assets that Arthur can’t supply.
And it says something about the anecdotes Arthur retails here that she needs to borrow some of the funniest from other sources, including drag performer Charles Pierce (there’s a major gay theme working through the show; Arthur knows her audience and appreciates it). But it’s the peculiar achievement of the show that its haplessness almost becomes an asset: Bowing for her final curtain call, Arthur raises an eyebrow and delivers the evening’s best line: “I’d like to thank you all for coming.” Pregnant pause, then that inimitable basso rumble growls out: “And I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Still Here.’ “